Classical music review: Golka, Amphion quartet do well by Chopin

The Dallas Morning News
By Scott Cantrell | March 8, 2015
Pianist Adam Golka performs at the Cliburn Festival. Robert W. Hart/Special Contributor

FORT WORTH — Along with Beethoven, Chopin is probably the most-played composer of solo piano music. Still it might have seemed foolhardy to program five all-Chopin concerts in four days, as the Cliburn Foundation did last Thursday through Sunday. Given that the best Chopin players tend to have some years on them, moreover, it might have tempted fate to assign all five programs to young pianists.

Results were mixed in the two programs I heard, in the auditorium of the Kimbell Art Museum’s Piano Pavilion. But on Sunday afternoon, once past three Nocturnes that seemed more calculated than felt, 26-year-old Adam Golka supplied deeply engaged, and splendidly engaging, performances.

Adding to the interest was the young Amphion String Quartet, which, along with bassist Brian Perry, joined in Tanya Bannister’s string-quintet version of Chopin’s F minor Piano Concerto (No. 2). Given the modest orchestral writing of the original, the arrangement worked better than you might expect. The five string players gave accomplished, expressive performances, but Katie Hyun’s violin turned steely under pressure, and Perry could have used a lighter touch on the bass line.

Golka admirably scaled his performance to the forces at hand. Without the mass of an orchestra to coordinate, he was freer to indulge in quite generous rubato. He gave the music lovely lilt when wanted, but spun out the gentle slow-movement flourishes with improvisatory freedom. This was quite a fetching performance.

On its own, the Amphion made surprisingly persuasive cases for string-quartet arrangements of two Nocturnes: in E-flat major (Op. 9, No. 2) and C-sharp minor (Op. Posth.). Again, though, Huyn’s violin sometimes got disagreeably wiry in the first; the second fared better, with David Southorn playing first violin.

Trained under the late José Feghali at Texas Christian University, and Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Conservatory, the Texas-born pianist has good credentials. But Polish genes and blood, from immigrant parents, may have lent extra energy and authority to his performances of the Polonaise No. 5 in F-sharp minor and the Ballade No. 3.

Golka gave great swagger to the stormy, even defiant, parts of the former, just skirting the edge of overdoing it, but there was gentle playfulness elsewhere. He delivered the Ballade with a great storyteller’s sense of tone and timing.

In Thursday’s opening concert, played by Mariangela Vacatello, the Kimbell’s Steinway sounded dull and colorless, as if it had a cold. Golka somehow found the harmonic development so lacking on Thursday; he made the piano sound like quite a decent instrument.