Thousands of aspiring musicians enter conservatories every year, each dreaming that their lifetime of sacrifices will result in triumph at a major competition. However, the stark reality is that only a handful even get to compete at the highest level, where even being awarded the first prize is no guarantee of success. After the lustre of being a competition winner wears off, it is then up to the artist to carve his own career and unfortunately the majority of them fall by the wayside.
Since sweeping all the major prizes at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2013, Vadym Kholodenko has been hailed by the press all over the world as a bona-fide artist with a highly refined sense of individualism.
A glance at his programme at his recital on Sunday at the Esplanade Concert Hall revealed much: none of the usual competition fodder, and opening with Balakirev's rarely performed Sonata No. 2 In B-Flat Minor. Afterall, this was a pianist who had the gall and absolute artistic confidence to perform a Mozart piano concerto at the finals of the Van Cliburn.
Although most known for his wildly vulgar and self-aggrandising Islamey: Oriental Fantasy, Balakirev's music is cast from a similar mould as that of Chopin. The quasi-baroque opening of his Sonata No. 2 was shaped with absolute care under the hands of Kholodenko, who captured the subtleties of the four movements with stunning control.
Most competition winners have no difficulty tossing out running notes with unqualified accuracy and dexterity, but he brought such a refined level of sophistication to his phrasing that made one marvel at the beauty of the music instead of his level of virtuosity.
Balancing the introversion with its moments of unbuttoned joyfulness, Kholodenko's rendition of Johannes Brahms' 7 Fantasies Op. 116 was one of restrained exuberance. Few pianists are able to counter the monochrome qualities of the piano with such a vivid array of touches and colour.
Even in his romanticised vision of Dmitri Shostakovich's 24 Preludes, there was always a sense of grandeur, character and intellectual clarity. The magnificent G-Sharp Minor (Prelude No. 12) in particular was a delight with its perfectly-weighted rubato.
Including a work by Franz Liszt usually affords the performer a level of freedom in an extroverted display of technical brilliance, but Kholodenko instead brought out the spontaneity and free-spiritedness of the work without its usual pomp and fireworks. It wasn't that he was incapable of technical displays, as there was not a misplaced note or accent, but rather that his artistry was of more importance to him than impressing with overbearing outbursts of flashiness.
Why else would he perform Anton Bataglovov's transcription of Herny Purcell's Ground In C Minor as an encore? And to top it off, he offered up his own arrangement of Nachmusik from Mahler's 7th Symphony, brilliantly capturing the guitar and mandolin figurations of the original work.