Fort Worth — Unusual programming is often unusual for unfortunate reasons, such as a last-minute switch due to some mishap or an intriguing idea that looks good on paper but just doesn't work in performance.
The Fort Worth Symphony's unusual program this weekend is no such unfortunate, however. An orchestral transcription by one musical colossus of another colossus' chamber work, on the one hand, and two very different piano concertos by one composer, on the other, makes for all kinds of thrills, especially when both pianists are Vadym Kholodenko.
Kholodenko, who took the three top awards at the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition—the gold medal, the prize for outstanding performance of a chamber work and the prize for outstanding performance of a new work—was more than equal to the demands of the two Prokofiev concertos, the D-flat major Concerto No. 1, Op. 10, and the B-flat major Concerto No. 4, Op. 53, the work that opened the program.
One of the tricks of the Fourth Concerto—two short, fast movements bookending two longer, more deliberate ones—is that, though written for the left hand only, it doesn't sound like the pianist is at all limited. Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya referred to its chamber-music qualities, and, as such, it may have shown off Kholodenko's range of abilities more than did the flashier Concerto No. 1.
The conductor also joked about the Fourth being "half a concerto," but he knows as well as did Paul Wittgenstein (the one-handed pianist for whom the work was written) that a one-handed pianist should be treated as a complete pianist using one hand, rather than as half a pianist.
It's difficult to imagine this quality being shown off better than it was on Friday evening at Bass Performance Hall by orchestra, conductor and soloist—especially in moments such as the gorgeous blackout ending of the last movement, which is a tiny jewel of a musical essay with sharp edges and mercifully rounded corners all packed into ... was it really less than two minutes?
Yes, Prokofiev's Fourth Concerto is a short work. His first is even shorter. A student work, it could easily have swelled to three times its 15-minute size in more experienced hands, and we can all be glad it didn't.
Fifteen minutes? It usually runs a little longer than that, but it certainly didn't on Friday. The way Kholodenko tore into the second paragraph of the work, it's a wonder that it topped 10 minutes. Blindingly fast, yet clean and dry, his first solo passage outshone the usually imposing opening 30 measures, the Concerto's "hook," if you will. And if the upper strings were difficult to hear in the first reprise of the opening—though they made up for it in the second reprise, which closes the piece—their work in the two slow sections brought out details that highlighted the unusual, but inescapable, logic of the whole.
Closing the concert—and no one should envy anyone who follows an act like Kholodenko's—was Arnold Schoenberg's orchestration of Johannes Brahms's Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor. Part of Schoenberg's motivation for undertaking this arrangement was that the technical demands of the original—especially those placed on the pianist—rendered it prone to bad performance.
Friday evening's performance proved that Schoenberg didn't exactly make the work easier, though, in reworking it. There were points during this four-movement workout at which little question marks appeared, such as the slightly hesitant French horn statement of the mazurka-like theme in the second movement; yet the reprise of the same theme by the same player had enough fire and confidence to turn that question mark into an exclamation point.
And the frightening way the final movement threatened to shake apart towards the end would likely have thrilled Brahms and Schoenberg alike—make no mistake, it was all calculated, but it was still frightening.
An unusual program? Yes, but we should wish all unusual programs worked so well.