Martin Helmchen, Andrew Manze & DSO Berlin - Beethoven: Piano Concertos 1 & 4 - Fanfare

In Beethoven’s 250th year we might not have the right to expect new revelations—this is a composer, after all, who has enjoyed fame and awed admiration for at least 230 of those years, amassing over 6,000 record reviews in the Fanfare Archive—but even without being revelatory, Martin Helmchen’s cycle of the five piano concertos inspires me with the thought that there will always be musicians for whom Beethoven’s music is alive. I had previously had an up-and-down image of Helmchen’s career, up at the beginning when he was a shining young member of Pentatone’s three German stars, along with violinist Julia Fischer and cellist Daniel Müller-Schott, but then down when he didn’t mature into a very interesting or deep pianist.

Now in his late 30s, Helmchen has come to life with Beethoven. I was impressed by the first installment in his cycle, which contained Concertos Nos. 2 and 5. In my review (Fanfare 43:5) I described Helmchen and conductor Andrew Manze in terms that apply to Concerto No. 1 here: “They give the Second Piano Concerto a light, high-spirited reading, keeping textures bright and clear even though the Deutches Symphony Orchestra Berlin is at almost full force, being thinned out only in the cellos and double basses.” But Concerto No. 1 has better music than No. 2, and Helmchen gives an intent, beautifully molded reading of the lovely slow movement. Manze is an attentive accompanist who also takes full advantage of the orchestral tuttis. But the pianist attacks the finale with a staccato punch that I dislike, and Alpha’s somewhat over-bright sound adds a sting to the upper frequencies. Different audio systems might soften that flaw.

The shift that has revised our feeling for Beethoven due to HIP influences has helped lighten Concerto No. 1, so that even a riveting interpreter like Martha Argerich with Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG) is saddled with plodding tempos we don’t hear today. But Concerto No. 4 needed no rectifying, and a modern performer confronts great interpreters from the past who cast a long shadow, beginning for most of us with Artur Schnabel; in the stereo era my standard is Rudolf Serkin for power and authority, contrasted with Wilhelm Kempff for finesse and lyricism. Helmchen’s opening bars are gently graceful, and Manze gives the long orchestra part that follows a reading you can pay attention to instead of tapping your foot until the piano returns. The Deutsches Symphony is a little rough-hewn, but that suits Beethoven, and the orchestra shows that it is fully engaged.

With Helmchen the gentle start belies how powerful and exciting he is in the first movement once Beethoven really challenges the pianist. It’s an unexpectedly complete reading, too, offering delicacy where wanted and turning the cadenza into a solo piano piece as involved as a middle-period Beethoven sonata. I haven’t heard better in a long time. Helmchen identifies with the score to his marrow. Manze’s clipped, brusque opening to the slow movement breaks the spell, unfortunately, but Helmchen is eloquent in the placid, inward solo part. He’s in a different world from the orchestra’s urgency, which is as it should be.

The ethereal suspension in the piano part that transitions to the finale is the most magical moment in the five piano concertos, and Helmchen is outstanding as he moves from a string of ascending trills to the barest hush in the closing phrase. Coordinating piano and orchestra in the first moments of the finale is notoriously tricky, but it goes very smoothly here. Manze adds an extra charge to accents and dynamics, which is effective. I wish Helmchen didn’t wait so long to burst forth with bravura confidence, but he displays considerable variety in his phrasing, which makes the music sound freshly appealing.

I ended my initial review of this cycle by saying that Helmchen surpassed every recent rival in the Beethoven piano concertos, and the same still holds true. Many releases in the Beethoven year are pro forma, but Helmchen and Manze perform Beethoven with a vibrant sense of aliveness. Strongly recommended.

13 August 2020