Saturday 23 September 2023

The juxtaposition of extreme eras of music makes people think about what is fascinating in the music: Ukrainian pianist Vadym Kholodenko on his London Piano Festival programme

Vadym Kholodenko at the Dubrovnik Summer Festival in 2022
Vadym Kholodenko at the Dubrovnik Summer Festival in 2022

The Ukrainian pianist Vadym Kholodenko gives a recital at the London Piano Festival at Kings Place on Friday 6 October 2023 playing a programme that moves from Handel's Suite in Bb HWV 440 and Haydn's Sonata in C sharp minor, Hob XVI No. 36 to Beethoven's Sonata No. 27, Op. 90 to Silvestrov's Bagatelles Op. 1 and Adès' Traced Overhead, ending with Liszt's Après une lecture de Dante and Tarantella in G minor from Années de pèlerinage II (Italy). And Vadym returns to the UK in December for Bartók's Piano Concerto No.3 with the Ulster Orchestra, conductor Elena Schwarz.

Vadym Kholodenko (Photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot)
Vadym Kholodenko (Photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot)

Born in Kyiv, Ukraine, Vadym took his first piano lessons at the age of six and began touring internationally at thirteen years old. Educated at the Kyiv Lysenko State Music Lyceum and the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatoire, he studied with Natalia Gridneva, Borys Fedorov, and the late Vera Gornostaeva (1929-2015). In 2013, he took the Gold Medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

He enjoys playing a wide range of composers, and his idea behind the Kings Place recital is partly to show the range and variety he is currently interested in. Music by a composer such as Handel certainly does not sound how the composer might have heard it, but Vadim enjoys playing this music. The score is very minimal, so he takes a fairly free approach to the piece, making his own version by mixing different sections, so for instance the opening material is repeated at the end. He is following the idea of the freedom of improvisation that Handel might have taken, and in many ways, Vadym likens it to jazz, the music consists of a set of chords and he can do his own thing.

Later in our interview, I followed this comment up with a question about playing jazz, but Vadym admits that he is not a jazz performer, he can't do it, though he did once participate in a competition with jazz players in Lithuania!

He very much enjoys playing Haydn's sonatas, but there is a similar problem to Handel, in that the late Beethoven sonatas are the first to work best on a modern piano, earlier sonatas by Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn are not completely appropriate for the big monster. And sadly, Haydn's keyboard sonatas are still not that popular. For Vadym they are beautiful and he finds so many fresh ideas in them that seem to create developments that end in Beethoven. But he adds that the symphonies are similar, they are just not so much done in the concert hall.

Valentin Silvestrov (born 1937), who was born in Kyiv but fled to Germany in 2022, has been working on his short pieces, which he calls Bagatelles since 2001, and Vadym regards them as classics of modern music. Vadym describes Silvestrov as going through difficult phases in his career, beginning 'Sturm und Drang, contemporary and direct, and then moving to minimalism. Vadym describes Silvestrov's music as deceivingly simple, it is not what it seems at first sight. Vadym enjoys playing the music, revealing the layers underneath and reaching the very deep message in Silvestrov's heart.

Thomas Adès wrote Traces Overhead in 1996 and it is the longest of his three solo piano works. Vadym regards it as one of the best contemporary piano pieces and he finds the writing for piano to be so novel. When he first had sight of the work, he was thrilled to disentangle the difficulties of the new piano techniques Adès (himself a gifted pianist) used. Adès superposes different layers of sound and colours, and his use of the pedal is innovative.

Vadym comments that the huge fun of contemporary music is the making of discoveries. He certainly enjoys performing new repertoire and feels that if you just stick to classical repertoire, this slows down the process of bringing new ideas to audiences and slows down their appreciation of new music. Part of his job is to discover new and fabulous music exists and has a right to be on the stage.

In theory, he is also interested in the historic byways of earlier music but feels that he still needs time to work on the classic repertoire. He mentions Liszt's Dante Sonata and how he feels that there is still something hidden there, that there is more to reveal. And then there are the works by Liszt's contemporaries like Chopin. But many names are forgotten, and sadly there is a lot of neglected beautiful music. At the moment, he still has something to say with well-known repertoire, but eventually, he hopes to have time to explore the byways too.

He refers to concert programming as a complex and difficult process. Sometimes he focuses on particular composers, so in 2017 he recorded a disc of Scriabin and spent some time exploring this late-Romantic repertoire. For the concert in London, he wanted to make a more diverse concert, to oppose different sides of the piano repertoire. He hopes that something interesting might come up in the audience's imagination, and programmes that really bring something to audiences fascinate him. 

But it is a fragile balance. He has played the London programme ten to twelve times, and perhaps the first half does not quite catch the attention but they are all pieces that he has a deep love of, and this is balanced by the second half. And he loves the way things come up after the concert; in his audience encounters he finds that the juxtaposition of extreme eras of music makes people think about what is fascinating in the music, what makes them listen. Such a programme is work for active listening, asking yourself why you like the programme.

On 1 December 2023, Vadym is the soloist in Bartók's Piano Concerto No.3 with the Ulster Orchestra, conductor Elena Schwarz (at the Ulster Hall, Belfast). Currently, this is the only one of Bartók's concertos that he plays. It is a late work, written in 1945 during the final months of his life, and Vadym finds his way of writing so clear. Before COVID, Vadym was playing it four or five times a season and enjoying it each time. He comments about some great music, another work he mentions is Strauss' Burleske, which is so rarely played yet is on a part with the more well-known pieces. 

In Piano Concerto No.3, Vadym enjoys the way Bartók uses the orchestra, writing like chamber music at times, so that it is just him and a few orchestral musicians playing, something that makes it more interesting for the players too. Whereas in the two earlier concertos, Vadym feels that the orchestra prevails a bit too much, perhaps. He plays some of Bartók's music for solo piano, but a work like Mikrokosmos is difficult both from the player's and the audience's point of view and has to be approached carefully; it is not meant for a full recital.

Vadym Kholodenko (Photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot)
Vadym Kholodenko (Photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot)

At the age of six, Vadym's mother decided that it would be a good idea for him to have music lessons. He learned the violin at first, but this was not a success and he moved to the piano. He has always felt that the piano was part of himself. As he got older, he thought more about what it was to be a musician and the commitment required. He also started to try and clarify important questions, to think about what attracts audiences, after all, musicians need audiences. And music is still his passion.

His influences are many, but one name he came up with was a pianist whose playing stunned Vadym the first time he heard him, the jazz pianist Oscar Peterson (1925-2007). Vadym calls him a great piano player, and if you look at Peterson's hands in his videos they tell you a lot about how you approach the piano.

Vadym enjoys all types of playing, solo, chamber music and orchestra. In an ideal world, he would enjoy doing more solo recitals, but he enjoys everything. There are, of course, pluses and minuses to playing with an orchestra, whilst a solo recital he likens to playing in a theatre with just one actor, adding that theatre does in fact give him great enjoyment. And playing chamber music gives him access to such a beautiful repertoire.

For Vadym's full range of current concerts, see his website.

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