It was something of a surprise to see that for his Boston debut, pianist Vadym Kholodenko — the 2013 Van Cliburn Gold Medalist — had programmed mostly small-scale music characterized by elegance and restraint. But in his Celebrity Series recital, Kholodenko’s huge dynamic range and questing sensibility enlarged even the smallest works to epic proportions. The results were imposing, if not consistently musical.
His curtain-raiser was the magnificent Handel Chaconne in G. This is grand music, and Kholodenko played it with heraldic vigor. But there was too little color or dynamic variety, and the tone at forte had a strident edge.
A similar tonal stridency was evident in Mozart’s winsome Rondo in D (K. 485). Kholodenko often began phrases quietly only to shift abruptly to a declamatory forte mid-phrase. The gesture might have worked better in a larger space, but within the intimate Pickman Hall, the effect was often hectoring. Even so, it was hard not to admire his dazzling scales and rhythmic deftness.
There was even more to admire in the second Mozart Rondo on the program, the great
A Minor (K. 511). Here, Kholodenko’s outsize dynamic range and febrile dramatic intensity amplified the tragic weight of this visionary music. Best, in the first half, was the Beethoven Sonata in G (Op. 14, No. 2), in which the pianist tempered bold muscularity with pastoral elegance. This is one of Beethoven’s loveliest sonatas, and Kholodenko’s measured tempos allowed its capricious rhythms to speak with easy grace.
In an array of Debussy miniatures on the second half, Kholodenko produced a prismatic array of colors that I had missed earlier. In “Children’s Corner,” his tone was a miracle of floating refinement. “The Snow Is Dancing” evanesced into nothingness; “Jimbo’s Lullaby” had a magically melancholic poise. Only “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk,” a little too slow, failed to take wing.
He savored the quirky nuances of Debussy’s boundlessly inventive second book of “Images.” If the moon shone a bit too brightly in “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut,” the wriggling arpeggios at the close of “Poissons d’or” were gritty and fluid, brilliantly merging fish with water.
Balakirev’s barnburner, “Islamey,” seemed to make for an incongruous closer. A concession to competition-winning pyrotechnics? Not at all. Kholodenko’s ardent lyricism and textural transparency made what can seem a garish showpiece sound like an experimental tone poem. It was playing of musical integrity and, finally, enormous excitement.Seth Herbst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.