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Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Sonata No. 7, Op. 25 No. 2, in E minor, Night Wind [30:00]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Three movements from Bach Partita No. 3 [8:12]
Wohin? (Schubert transcription) [2:24]
Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream [4:31]
Lullaby (Tchaikovsky transcription) [4:29]
Polka de W.R. [3:53]
Liebesleid (Kreisler transcription) [4:42]
Liebesfreud (Kreisler transcription) [6:08]
Vadym Kholodenko (piano)
rec. dates unspecified, Studio No. 5, “Kultura” TV, Moscow
DELOS DE3467 [64:32]

Vadym Kholodenko, winner of the 2013 Van Cliburn competition, sets out with a solo debut that skilfully combines the familiar with the unknown. You can judge his pianism against the greats in Rachmaninov’s famous transcriptions — Liebesfreud, the Polka de W.R., and Mendelssohn’s midsummer scherzo are here — and you can be equally impressed by his advocacy of Nikolai Medtner’s seventh sonata.

That sonata, Night Wind, is a behemoth, a half-hour epic in one giant movement. It’s like a massive painting of a howling nightscape, so huge your eyes can only take in part of it at a time, and the pianist plays as your vision scans across new scenes on the canvas. If this were programmed in recital with the Liszt B minor sonata, the pianist would need to drink Gatorade and receive a massage at the interval and at the end of the night everyone’s heads would be spinning.

Medtner dedicated the piece to an appreciative Rachmaninov, and the sonata demands virtuosity. Indeed, the demand is basically constant over the half-hour — the piano version of running a marathon. Many people have become increasingly attracted to Medtner recently, helped along by pianists like Geoffrey Tozer, Yevgeny Sudbin, and Marc-André Hamelin. I still feel that Medtner is hindered by his bluster and his obscure melodies, but Kholodenko really sells this piece, partly because his 30-minute traversal is uncommonly fast. Geoffrey Tozer is a full five minutes slower. I have not heard Hamish Milne or Hamelin in this work, but their Medtner series are the go-to destinations if your curiosity is piqued.

The Rachmaninov transcriptions are a half-hour grab-bag, starting with three Bach selections performed with romantic fullness and maybe a little dry dust. The Polka de W.R., on the other hand, is playful and teasing, just as it should be, a tour de force. Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby doesn’t sound at all like Tchaikovsky, and sucks you right in. Liebesleid and Liebesfreud run into superior competition from the recent Yevgeny Sudbin recording. Kholodenko just seems too strait-laced and plain in comparison to the admittedly eccentric Sudbin, who teases the sentimental tunes like taffy and indulges in some tasteful rewrites.

The media has reported that the “Russian piano tradition” is resurrected in the form of Vadym Kholodenko. Carol Rosenberger, director of Delos and herself a marvellous pianist, writes, “The legendary Russian pianism of yesteryear is alive and well! When I listen to Vadym play the piano, I feel that I am witnessing a musical reincarnation.” Sure, but did the Russian piano tradition ever fade? Arcadi Volodos, Alexander Melnikov, Yevgeny Sudbin and Denis Matsuev are some of the best pianists on the planet. Evgeny Kissin, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Mikhail Pletnev are still active. Anna Malikova, Eldar Nebolsin and Muza Rubackyte were born in Soviet satellite states and are uncommonly gifted performers. Lera Auerbach keeps alive the Russian piano composer-performer tradition. Valentina Lisitsa has become a virtuosic YouTube sensation.

Where does Kholodenko (a Ukrainian) fit into the spectrum? He’s a lot like Matsuev or the young Volodos, with technique to burn and enough panache for a half-dozen lesser performers. He manages to perform the Medtner sonata not just with basic survival skills but with eagerness and flair. That said, he doesn’t (yet) show the sublime coloristic skill of middle-aged Volodos, or the weird unpredictable imagination of Sudbin. He’s certainly not the “I’m too old to go barnstorming” poet Alexander Melnikov became by the wheezy old age of 35. Maybe we’ll get to hear those qualities on the next disc; his Beethoven in the Cliburn competition was pretty good. Kholodenko is just 28 years old. I’m not totally sold yet, but the sky could be the limit.

Brian Reinhart