After Brahms performed his First Piano Sonata, a friend mentioned the resemblance between its opening theme and that of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, to which the composer gruffly replied ‘Any ass can hear that!’ Since this apocryphal story refuses to die, Adam Golka has decided to couple the works on disc for the first time, so he claims. Taking Brahms’s first movement at a genuine, fluid allegro, Golka manages to make the thick staccato chords sound supple without sacrificing their orchestral heft. Although Golka doesn’t differentiate the Andante’s marcato repeated notes to the multi-dimensional extent of Krystian Zimerman’s long-deleted reference version (DG, 6/80), his subtle harmonic inflections and vocally informed legato prove no less exquisite. The Scherzo has impressive rhythmic spring but the Allegro con fuoco finale’s momentum flags next to Zimerman or Katchen, who goose up the basic pulse to ensure cumulative sweep.
Golka’s well-oiled fingers navigate the Beethoven’s first-movement technical provocations fluently, with amazingly even trills to boot. However, telegraphed dynamics, ritards less effective than those indicated by the composer, plus a rather stiff and texturally cluttered central fughetta yield to Igor Levit’s superior dynamism and headlong drama (Sony, 11/13). Golka’s impeccable yet square-toed, slightly careful Scherzo lacks Pollini’s intensity and Peter Serkin’s winged nervous energy. At 19 minutes, Golka’s Adagio sostenuto conveys breadth and sustaining power, even while dynamically holding back in the anguished climaxes. What seem like unusually clipped bass notes in the fourth-movement introduction actually represent Golka observing Beethoven’s pedal markings. Aside from a few mannered phrasings that draw more attention to Golka than to Beethoven in the fugue exposition, his suave dispatch of the combative contrapuntal writing evokes Solomon’s classic recording, in contrast to the jazzy, stinging darts that Stewart Goodyear’s altogether brasher hands (Marquis, A/11) throw every which way. While this excellently produced disc undoubtedly showcases Golka’s proficient capabilities, his live performances of these daunting works (available on YouTube) take more chances.