Martin Helmchen, winner of the Clara Haskil Competition in 2001, when he was not yet 20 years old, has come in for a lot of praise in these pages, in Schubert, Shostakovich, and more Schubert. It is a thrill to have one's expectations for a performer, on the basis of his recordings (he signed with PentaTone in 2007), be exceeded on hearing him live. This is what happened at Helmchen's Washington debut recital, presented by Washington Performing Arts on Saturday afternoon in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, where he leaped to or at least near the top of my estimation among performers of every composer whose music he played. Since WPAS President Jenny Bilfield was not in the audience, undoubtedly preparing for the WPAS Gala later that evening, let me say that if Helmchen is willing to come back to Washington every other year, WPAS should host him regularly. (Perhaps a duo recital with his wife, cellist Marie-Elisabeth Hecker, too.)
First, there was Bach, the fourth partita (D major, BWV 828), which showcased many sides of Helmchen's playing, starting with a big, brassy touch in the Overture, the dotted section powered by velvety runs and with a crank-up of energy on the repeat, leading to fun embellishments. In the fugal section, he layered the contrapuntal voices with different kinds of articulations, his foot light on the sustaining pedal. The Allemande had a completely different, scaled-down feel, like an intimate dance in which Helmchen caressed each unusual harmonic area and curl of melody. The Courante was back to a bigger sound, but without the jagged tune cutting the ears, and in the Aria, Helmchen took all sorts of rhythmic liberties, like a singer taking care with the words, full of verve. No one can play this partita without coming up with a solution to the little solo right-hand flight of fancy in the Sarabande: Helmchen did not add any pedal, just allowed it to twist off into its own quirky thoughts, letting it hang there, glimmering. The addition of some notes inégales to the Menuett showed a familiarity with Baroque harpsichord specialists, and the Gigue left no doubts as to Helmchen's technical prowess.
Storytelling was at the center of Helmchen's interpretation of Robert Schumann's Waldszenen (op. 82), a piece reviewed live only once in the history of Ionarts, in the hands of András Schiff. Helmchen was, if anything, technically freer and more assured than Schiff, by turns wistful, meltingly legato, stark and dramatic. Tense malevolence came out in "Verrufene Stelle" and a boisterous, happy din in "Herberge," but the mercurial bird song of "Vogel als Prophet" was as unpredictable, almost unmusical as, well, a bird. From the broad and sentimental, Helmchen went to rarefied and spare in Webern's Variations for Piano, op. 27, but played it with a striking expressive palette, voicing the distantly spaced fragments of melody, giving the second movement almost the sense of an ecstatic rant.
Stephen Brookes, Washington Performing Arts Society’s Hayes Piano Series review (Washington Post, May 12)