Martin Helmchen at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Partita in E minor, BWV 830
Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jésus – XVII: Regard du Silence; XVIII: Regard de L’Onction terrible; XV: Le baiser de L’Enfant-Jésus
Arabeske, Op.18
Etudes en forme de Variations [Etudes symphoniques], Op.13 [revised 1852 edition with the five posthumous variations]

Martin Helmchen (piano)

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 18 February, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

This recital from Martin Helmchen rounded off the Winter portion of the International Piano Series. With two well-received releases of Mozart and Schubert under his belt and in growing demand internationally, Helmchen’s career certainly seems on the up.

Martin Helmchen. Photograph: Marco BorggreveThis carefully chosen programme highlighted not only his willingness to tackle a wide variety of music and styles but an effortless ease to accommodate them. Helmchen not only has a formidable technique but also a keen musicality and a sense of purpose.

The Bach was a case in point. Playing these harpsichord works on the piano is always a debatable point, but if you are going to do so, this was the way to do it. Clarity of texture and beautifully clean fingerwork marked Helmchen’s playing here, wonderfully unforced and free flowing. The opening ‘Toccata’ and ‘Allemande’ were beautifully articulated and paced, the highly syncopated rhythms of the ‘Corrente’ elegantly pulled off, the ‘Sarabande’ suitably elegant and restrained and the closing ‘Gigue’ authoritative and beautifully pointed.

Three selections from Messiaen’s gigantic (two-hour) Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jésus showed Helmchen coping effortlessly with a work that places on the pianist the most difficult technical demands. It is decidedly tonal music, by no means inaccessible and containing some thrilling writing with shades of Scriabin and Debussy in its impressionistic and expressionist textures. Helmchen produced some glittering colours in the opening ‘Regard du Silence’, the second, ‘Regard de L’Onction terrible’ produced some breathtaking control of dynamics and ‘Le baiser de L’Enfant-Jésus’ Helmchen created an atmosphere of serenity and calm, and avoided sentimentality.

Schumann’s Arabeske, which opened the second half, showed Helmchen as equally adept in the Romantic idiom. The opening rippling theme was beautifully shaped, the music ebbing and flowing poetically. Only some slightly forced playing in the middle section detracted from a fine performance.

In Etudes symphoniques (including the five posthumous variations), Helmchen pulled out all the stops in this startling music. While not fully in possession of a cantabile style, Helmchen was fully able to do justice to the more lyrical passages, and sweeps and trills elsewhere were effortless, the finale brilliantly luminous.

A Max Reger transcription of a Bach chorale provided a serene encore to a fine evening of music-making.

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