Martin Helmchen at Wigmore Hall – Schoenberg & Beethoven

Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op.19
Piano Sonata in B flat, Op.106 (Hammerklavier)

Martin Helmchen (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 7 March, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Martin Helmchen. Photograph: Marco Borggreve Musical structures great and small formed this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert, with Martin Helmchen ably demonstrating how emotional intensity can be achieved through very different musical shapes and sizes. Schoenberg’s miniatures of 1911 are sharply focussed dots of intensity, with not a note wasted as they alternate between brief, contemplative asides and sudden outbursts of aggressive and passionate feeling. The Second piece, marked ‘Langsam’, was the pick here, its clipped staccato thirds punctuating a broadly phrased melody, Helmchen leaning deliberately on its downward contour. The subsequent piece was solemn and imposing; while the Fifth, a whispered aside against the distant toll of bells, was exquisite.

To cast the full extent of their spell on the listener these pieces require extreme concentration on the part of the audience and breaks of complete silence. Sadly this was wrecked by a mobile phone – a piano tone, no less – between the Second and Third pieces. It rang for at least twenty seconds before its owner finally did the decent thing. Helmchen was visibly put out, but regained his composure admirably.

Time-wise, all six of Schoenberg’s pieces would be comfortably accommodated within the exposition of the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, for here we experienced a very different and sustained emotional intensity. Quickly into his stride, Helmchen gave an immediate idea of the sheer stature of the sonata, the opening relatively short on bombast but still imposing in its grandeur. From here he impressed with his legato phrasing, which occasionally became pronounced as the right-hand lines were lifted to greater prominence, but at no expense to the overall momentum.

The scherzo illustrated well the tussle between B flat and B minor, while in the extended slow movement Helmchen sought and eventually found pure stillness, starting on the fast side but eventually taking his time as the peaceful chords tolled softly. This gave him an ideal platform from which to launch the finale’s fugue, the introduction ideally paced until it yielded to the subject, supple and well-voiced. As the mighty fugue progressed and got progressively louder the music threatened to run away from Helmchen but he just about held on to it, reaching the sudden full-stop that is the famous crashing discord. From this point the ending was both massive and inevitable, the final statements of the fugue subject majestically delivered.

While this may be an interpretation in progress, Martin Helmchen showed many fine things in the course of this performance. Not least among these was a keen ear for detail and a fluid sense of phrasing – refreshingly musical rather than openly demonstrative.

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