18 August 2020, Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Befitting their pedigree, Alena Baeva and Vadym Kholodenko have evolved a rewardingly compatible musical partnership in recent years. Interpretatively intense, both are blessed with infallibly golden techniques at the service of poetry, detail and bravura. Slavic to the core (she’s Russian, he’s Ukrainian), they breathe the notes, the electricity sparks. She’s the more pro-active player, body language subtly communicative, responsive to the emotions of the moment. He’s the quieter personality, in the undemonstratively groomed mould reminiscent of those obsequious pianists one remembers from one’s youth accompanying such as Oistrakh, Milstein, Szeryng. Between them they make splendid music, caressing and climactic, temperature and tension at a premium. He of velvet-toned bass lines and voicing, she of cut-glass precision and searingly-placed intonation.

This stand-out Warsaw recital offered a connoisseur programme testing at all levels of the emotional, spiritual and intellectual spectrum. Schubert’s late C-major Fantasy (D934) is not an easy work to hold together, and its more leisured construction (compared with the motivically insistent ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy) left early critics unimpressed. “This popular composer has frankly gone off the rails.” Music that “lasts rather longer than the time that the Viennese are prepared to devote to their aesthetic pleasures. The hall gradually emptied … your correspondent … is unable to say how this piece ended.” Baeva and Kholodenko played it for their lives, sensitive to investing accompaniments with melodic shape, making the most of dynamics as an expressive and dramatic tool, neither shy of a rubato at times near Yiddish in nostalgia – somewhere a young man approaching his end wandering Vienna’s cobbles, winter 1827.

Ornaments assumed communicative more than decorative meaning. And both showed us the art of ‘feathering’ fast passagework. Baeva drew the maximum warmth and song from her 1738 ‘ex-William Kroll’ Guarneri del Gesù. Kholodenko coaxed his Fazioli to coat Schubert’s harmonies in drapes of damasked colour, turning left-hand figures into cello phrases, dispatching staccato runs like so many droplets of rain. This is one of the most taxing piano parts in the repertory. From countless beautiful scenes and footnotes, two persist in the mind. The  A-flat major variations on the song ‘Sei mir gegrüßt’  (breathtaking execution, classic virtuosity); and the crescendo transition into the closing Allegro, the folk swagger and tempo brilliantly calculated, Baeva holding her top-C longer than customary, the note like a beacon pure and diamond-like, Kholodenko delaying fractionally before getting under way. Fabulous chemistry. The Fantasy was the first of Schubert’s chamber works I experienced as a student, in the summer of ’61 at what was the German Institute in South Kensington. Names from the past: the Hungarian refugee Marta Eitler, Ivor Keys. I turned pages. Alena, Vadym, floated me back.

Szymanowski’s Opus 30 triptych, Mythes (1915), transported us to fantastical spheres. Water imagery, the whole span of the ‘modern’ violin half-a-century ahead of itself – sound mixtures spun out of risk-stretching  flageolets, trills, tremolando, tremolo-glissandos, sul ponticello, simultaneously bowed and pizzicato articulation, quarter-tones – the piano as orchestra, chamber ensemble, camera, dreamscape, the eye, the voice of horizons, the shadow of spirits within. Szymanowski called his pieces ‘poems’, insisting that they were “not meant to be a drama, unfolding in scenes one after another … [but], rather, a complex musical expression of the inspiring beauty of the Myth.” In Baeva and Kholodenko he found his ideal muses. Their command and exacting observation, the sense of creating nuanced pictures free of strictures yet framed, their sheer technical mastery made for an intoxicating journey, a banquet of impressions and moods to hear, to watch, to score-read. The close of ‘The Fountain of Arethusa’, the “freshness and silence of the breaking dawn … a musical expression of the dreamy tension of a summer night” (‘Dryads and Pan’), proved a masterclass. One had to smile in disbelief. Baeva permitted herself a faint one.

Historically halfway between Mozart and Schubert, in a league of its own, Beethoven’s “Sonata mulattica”, the ‘Kreutzer’ Opus 47 (1803), set similarly high goals, the music alternating between storms and lulls, the peaks reached for, Baeva’s manner bold and concerto-like, grand statement and dolce sighs going hand in hand, the encounter for her one of mountain slopes to be conquered above and beyond the languid woodland pools of her yielding lower register. Kholodenko matched her for tone and depth, his chords sonorously rooted, the quaver patterning and broken-octaves of the first movement thrilling in an orchestral way, the energy and attack born of that world between the Opus 31 Piano Sonatas, Second Symphony and ‘Waldstein’, no quarter given.

This was a many-layered performance. Each slur and dot centered, every dynamic in theatrical counterpoint. The tempo fluctuations of the first movement (no repeat), from ritardandos to a tempos, Adagio to Presto, telling a different private story every time, were placed with meaningful regard for the architecture and current of the whole. The taxing F-major variation second movement (Andante favori key and cadence prescient, with repeats) flowered and murmured, Baeva pressing her offbeat sforzandos slightly more than her pianist, making for pliant conversation and give-and-take, ever the consummate soloist yet gentle partner. Intimately imagined, among the notes Lied, romance and heartbreak for the inner finding. The tarantella last movement (without repeat) spiralled on its dizzying way, the Adagio interpolations at the end magically hesitating on the brink before the final thrust home.

Two musicians in full flight at the top of their game. Unmissable.