Summer music festivals should start with a bang, and the fine young pianist Adam Golka was suitably explosive on Sunday night, launching the third annual Washington International Piano Festival with a combination of brilliant technique and real emotional depth. It wasn’t a particularly adventurous program — Golka stuck to the well-trod path of Beethoven, Brahms and Liszt — but it allowed the 23-year-old to show just how deeply he could plunge into familiar waters and find new wonders there. Performing at Catholic University’s Ward Hall, Golka opened with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 6 in F, Op. 10, No. 2, playing well but distantly until spectacularly catching fire in the brilliant Presto.
But Golka began to reveal himself and display his most impressive powers in Brahms’s Three Intermezzi, Op. 117. These were absolutely stunning performances — luminous, probing, deeply personal and drawn with unerring emotional accuracy.
This being a piano festival, Liszt was naturally invited, and Golka turned in a fine, ultra-precise reading of the popular Mephisto Waltz No. 1, S. 514. It’s a work that, to some of us, sounds like clever but meretricious gas-baggery, though Golka made it bearable enough.
Infinitely more engaging was Beethoven’s Sonata No. 29 in B-flat, Op. 106 — the “Hammerklavier” — which closed the program. This titanic work seemed to push Golka to the edge of his technique, and you could hear the strain at times. But his reading of the Adagio sostenuto movement was almost overwhelming in its honesty, insight and power.
The festival is well worth exploring for any piano-lover; concerts and master classes continue through Aug. 6, with daily recitals (some of them free) at Ward Hall and the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage.