Sonata in D, Op.102/2
Variations on Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen from Mozarts Die Zauberflöte, WoO46
Sonata No.1 in E minor, Op.38
Christian Poltéra (cello) &
Martin Helmchen (piano)
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: 3 January, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Two of the most demanding works in the cello and piano repertoire flanked a slighter, charming set of variations in this ambitious lunchtime recital. Both sonatas are both made especially gruelling by their fugal finales; they are also among the most rewarding pieces to play for this combination.
These are young artists (Christian Poltéra is BBC ‘New Generation’) but already with established pedigrees and musical personalities. Martin Helmchen has a classical persona, precise, disciplined, at times unyielding. He excelled, for example, in both sonatas’ finales – in the cross-rhythms of Brahms’s, and in his control and direction of the Beethoven. The Viennese character of the “Bei Männern” variations was also highly effective in idiom and structure. Poltéra is more openly expressive, best in lyrical passages, and when he seemed most able to relax – at the start of the Beethoven Sonata’s Adagio, or in the expansive opening of the Brahms. In tone and colour, Poltéra’s playing has an allusive, haunting quality, well able to convey whimsy and irony, less attractive in its harshness when placed under technical strain. Helmchen’s sound is pleasing, more notable for brightness than weight, dynamics beautifully judged.
When combined, some passages drew-in the listener, others were significantly less convincing. Both performers sounded particularly effective at piano and mezzo piano, perhaps an indication that if the recital had a general fault, it was a certain caution and reserve. Thus, the delicate third variation of Beethoven’s Mozart commentaries, and the skilfully delineated unisons of the trio of Brahms’s Allegretto were highlights; while the uncertainly balanced opening to Op.102/2, or the coda to the variations, were moments when my attention was distracted. The Beethoven slow movement was an ideal instance of strengths and weaknesses – the playing was beautiful and lyrical, so the movement opened especially well, but less notable for being profound or sublime, so the end did not match the beginning.
Brahms wrote his E minor Sonata as a thank-you to an amateur cellist. His known contempt for the cellist’s abilities may explain both the three years it took him to finish the work and the unequal writing in the finale, which requires a supreme effort on the part of the string player who can barely be heard for long passages. With that effort and some ungrateful writing, there is a danger that the string tone turns ugly. Despite both discipline and commitment, Poltéra and Helmchen did not quite solve the problems of the movement. A recital, then, that was no more than good, but as young performers tackling the very summits of the repertoire, there is surely much more to come from them.