At a recent concert on May 22 at Saint Thomas Church in midtown Manhattan, the pianist Adam Golka paused between pieces to address his audience. With the sculptor Lee Lawrie’s towering reredos to his back, Golka stood in the church’s Gothic Revival nave, microphone in hand, after a particularly involved turn at Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 3. Golka spoke about the piece he was about to play: Beethoven’s Sonata No. 26, known commonly as “Les adieux” (“The Farewell”). No. 26, Golka recounted, was composed in 1809 for Beethoven’s patron Archduke Rudolf of Austria around the time of Vienna’s evacuation in the face of Napoleon’s advancing army. The sonata’s three movements are accordingly named “The Farewell,” “The Absence,” and “The Reunion.” Golka paused on the last one and smiled. “Ring a bell?”
Good things are happening at Saint Thomas where, since March, the directors of this concert series have put on some of the very first in-person classical concerts in New York City. Saturday’s concert was part of a continuing series featuring all thirty-two of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, performed by Golka, a thirty-two-year-old pianist from Texas.
Golka is standing on the shoulders of giants. Two completists in particular come to mind: Arthur Schnabel, who recorded the first complete set of Beethoven sonatas between 1932 and 1935 and championed their performance at the nadir of their popularity; and Alfred Brendel, who recorded the first complete set of Beethoven’s piano music in the 1970s. Brendel’s sonata cycle was my listening material of choice while traveling to Saturday’s concert; upon sitting down and reading the program, I was pleased to find that Brendel had been Golka’s teacher. (Watch teacher and pupil discuss a sonata together in this video.)
I do hear quite a bit of Brendel in Golka’s playing. Both Brendel and Schnabel could take their Beethoven slower, and Golka’s tempos often approach theirs. In the faster movements, Golka did not strike me as someone of Emil Gilels’s sentiment—snappy, light, airy. No, Golka’s left hand kept a constant steady, throaty, full tone even as the tempos shifted. I was surprised by that left hand’s strength—it filled the church’s cavernous sanctuary space.
On offer that day were four sonatas, arranged thus: No. 12, No. 3, the aforementioned No. 26, and Sonata No. 31. No. 12 (1800–01) is the gem of the bunch for me. It is not at the top of most lists, but there is something beautifully balanced about it, especially in its opening and closing movements. It is a microcosm of Beethoven’s mastery in the sonata form. Brahms must have cherished the opening Andante con variazioni—can you hear a bit of the A-Major Intermezzo from his Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 118, in that lovely ascending figure?
No. 12 is best known for its third movement, a funeral march. Much has been written on it. Let me focus instead on the concluding Allegro. It’s a sterling example of how Beethoven could incorporate an almost Baroque style to his writing. Remember, Beethoven cut his teeth as a young virtuoso on J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. But I hear echoes reaching even further back. Listen to that gorgeous, ascending figure in the left hand, repeated twice in sets of three—Golka slowed the buildup to this figure noticeably to give it space and rubato to breathe—and see if it doesn’t remind you of a Baroque basso continuo, or of the undulating style brisé of the left hand in François Couperin’s Mysterious barricades (1717). Have a listen to that piece here.
Almost alone among his Romantic contemporaries, Frederic Chopin did not count himself as a disciple of Beethoven, believe it or not. But Chopin loved this sonata in particular, and listening to the Allegro, it makes sense. Chopin felt that his grounding was in the harmony and order of Bach and Mozart, rather than in what he saw as the vulgar excesses of Beethoven’s more Romantic tendencies. I think he must have cherished the joyful celebration of Baroque sensibility in this last movement, and seen in it something of the heroes both Beethoven and he had in common.
If the Allegro of Sonata No. 12 shows an older Beethoven at his most Baroque, then Sonata No. 3 surprises us with how Romantic even the young Beethoven’s tendencies could be. I love this juxtaposition, wisely ordered by Golka here.
“Les adieux” was admirably done, and there was real release in the final, celebratory “Reunion” movement as Golka cracked a subtle grin towards the finish. These are athletic sonatas, and Golka is an athletic player, hurtling about the piano bench with wild abandon. I heard a Glenn Gouldian humming while Golka played—at first, I was unsure if it was a buzzing in the piano, but no, as Golka dug deeper into the performance his humming grew more pronounced. When he stood up to take his final bow, beads of sweat glistened on his brow, and he was out of breath. It was a fully involved performance.
Golka’s attack was perhaps a touch heavy at times, but it came from a place of enthusiasm for the music and not one of bombast. To everything there is a season, and now is the season for robust, exciting performances of Beethoven sonatas, in person and in New York City once again.