Alexander Treshcenkov on Vadym Kholodenko's piano recital

“I think I’ve been to hell. Nerves. Stress. The whole town is wired, and everyone is bound up in it…” The words of the pianist Vadym Kholodenko could serve as an epigraph to a war story. But they are about the Van Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth, USA. In 2013, Kholodenko took part in this major international competition, which ended in triumph for him: the first prize and a gold medal. Despite his youth (he was only twenty-six), this was the last competition in his career, intentionally, though: the event introduced Kholodenko to a wide audience, and henceforth he could forget about competitions.

However, Vadym Kholodenko’s career in music is not “the story of Cinderella”. At the age of thirteen, he began touring in the USA, Hungary, Croatia, and China. He studied at the Moscow Conservatoire under Vera Gornostayeva, one of Russia’s leading musicians, then he regularly collaborated with Yuri Bashmet’s New Russia Orchestra and won an impressive list of awards at major international competitions. The pianist says that music competitions are hard work for him, and if he had not won the Cliburn Competition he would have “had” to participate in the toughest contest for a musician, according to Kholodenko, the Tchaikovsky Competition. But the victory in Texas had already done its work: not only had he got engagements for concerts around the United States, but also a contract with IMG, a major music agency that promotes musicians around the world.

About eight years have passed since then, and Kholodenko has proved that he is also not a “competition” pianist in that the lack of contests does not affect his career in any way. Critical reviews of the pianist’s performances confirm this fact: critics describe their fascination by “the delicate and thoughtful side of his pianism” and thrill of his “exquisite virtuosity” devoid of any superficial, assumed temperament. The musician himself states: “Music is such a substance: there is no difference whether it’s played by me or anybody else.”

The program of Vadym Kholodenko’s recital at the Diaghilev Festival is not quite familiar to the average concert-goer. It features two variation cycles — The People United Will Never Be Defeated! by Frederic Rzewski and 12 Variations on a Russian Dance by Ludwig van Beethoven. While the latter, based on Kamarinskaya from Wranitsky’s ballet Das Waldmädchen, is quite popular with pianists, the Variations by the living American composer Frederic Rzewski is a work rarely performed on the Russian stage.

The cycle of thirty-six piano variations on a Chilean song ¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! (“The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”) was composed in a sign of support for the Chilean people in their struggle against Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorial regime. In addition to this song by Sergio Ortega, the cycle develops the theme
of German composer Hans Eisler’s Solidaritätslied (Solidarity Song) and the theme of the Italian communist anthem Bandiera rossa (“Red Flag”). The cycle had its world premiere almost half a century ago, on February 7, 1976, with the American pianist Ursula Oppens as part of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Piano Festival. Three years later, the pianist recorded an album of variations which was named “Record of the Year” by Record World magazine and received a Grammy nomination.

In this truly monumental, almost hour-long work, musicologists find parallels with great variation cycles of the past: Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, and Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Paganini. In most of the cycle, Rzewski uses the romanticist language mixing it with atonal writing, neo-modal technique, and serialism. The composer’s notes to the variations reveal the dramatic plan of the work. The general tone of the music becomes obvious even with a quick look at the score: the notes “with determination”, “with a sense of victory”, “in a bellicose manner”, “ruthlessly, uncompromisingly” clearly outline the emotional mood of the entire cycle.

The structural beauty of Rzewski’s variations is of special interest. The 36-bar theme is performed twice — at the beginning of the cycle and at the end (no doubt, as in the Goldberg Variations, partly this is done to make the theme heard from a new perspective after a long journey through the variations). In between, there are thirty-six variations, which may be divided into six groups (six variations in each). Before the final statement of the theme, which expands by twenty bars, the composer includes an additional, optional improvisation of the pianist.

Many pianists who specialize in performing contemporary academic music consider the technical skills required by The People United Will Never Be Defeated! variations one of the most exceptional in 20th-century piano music. The pianist, in addition to the truly virtuoso academic technique necessary for the performance of this work and the ability to improvise, must be able to whistle, shout, slam the piano lid, catch the residual harmony vibrations after an attack, and much more, which implies knowledge of the “extended” techniques of 20th-century piano writing.

Text: Alexander Treshcenkov