Piano Recital: Martin Helmchen
Schumann / Schumann-Wieck / Schönberg / Bach / Messiaen / Chopin / Liszt
Druckerei, Baden/CH, 2018-10-26
We were in for another concert in the series / organized by Piano District, in the Druckerei Baden. It’s a small venue (some 200 seats), and the season is short, but exquisite (around 4 – 5 concerts per year). This time, they invited the German pianist Martin Helmchen (*1982 in Berlin , see also Wikipedia). Helmchen did his initial studies in Berlin, then continued with Arie Vardi (*1937) in Hannover, graduating in 2001.
Helmchen is not a pianist aiming at the virtuosic, late-romantic highlights. Known for his subtle, refined playing, he rather focuses on the classic and romantic repertoire, from Mozart to Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn. To this day, he remains an “insider tip”. Yet, he is known well enough to sell out this solo recital. My wife and I had seats in the second row of the rear gallery—with mostly excellent vision. The acoustics in this venue don’t depend on the seating position: the mid-size grand piano (Steinway B-211) fits both the venue and the repertoire in this recital.
The “Material” for the Concert Program
The program for this recital ran under the title “Novelletten“. That’s a name which Robert Schumann (1810 – 1956) used for the eight pieces in his op.21—see below. Martin Helmchen combined these eight movements with seven other, contrasting or complementary works (the links point to the descriptions below).:
- Schumann: Novelletten, op.21
- Bach: Partita No.4 in D major, BWV 828 (Sarabande)
- Chopin: Waltz No.3 in A minor, op.34/2, B.64
- Liszt: Bagatelle sans tonalité, S.216a
- Liszt: “Nuages gris”, S.199
- Schumann-Wieck: Soirées musicales, op.6 (Nos.1 & 2)
- Schönberg: 6 Little Pieces for Piano, op.19 (Nos.2 – 6)
- Messiaen: Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (8. Regard des hauteurs)
The Actual Concert Program
However, the above was not the program for the concert. Rather, Helmchen decided for a “composed” program. He would perform the eight Novelletten one by one, separated by the other compositions in the program. The actual recital program was as follows (here, the links point to the performance section, further below):
- Robert Schumann: Novellette No.1 in F major, op.21/1
- Robert Schumann: Novellette No.2 in D major, op.21/2
- Robert Schumann: Novellette No.3 in D major, op.21/3
- Robert Schumann: Novellette No.4 in D major, op.21/4
- Robert Schumann: Novellette No.5 in D major, op.21/5
- Robert Schumann: Novellette No.6 in A major, op.21/6
- Robert Schumann: Novellette No.7 in E major, op.21/7
- Robert Schumann: Novellette No.8 in F♯ minor, op.21/8
- Encore — Robert Schumann: Waldszenen, op.82: No.7, Vogel als Prophet
With this scheme, I decided to change the posting structure for once. I’m first giving some information on the compositions. A second, major section then features my comments on the performance.
In the section with the work descriptions, I start with Schumann’s Novelletten, the main work in the concert. The other compositions are described according to the chronology of their creation (by the composer’s birth date).
Schumann: Novelletten, op.21
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1956) composed his 8 Novelletten, op.21 in 1838. These are “character pieces” (Charakterstücke), apparently with close connection to Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Children’s Scenes), op.15, und den Kreisleriana, op.16. The title “Novellete” is Schumann’s own creation. He derived it from literature, where Novelle (novella) stands for a genre on its own, typically with a length between a novel and a short story.
Actually, a second source for the name appears to be the visit of the English singer Clara Novello (1818 – 1908). Schumann was very impressed by the singer and allegedly took this (and the fact that the singer shared the first name with his fiancée Clara) as another reason for the title of his pieces. As in the Kreisleriana, op.16, most pieces are in A-B-A form:
- No.1 in F major: Markiert und Kräftig (4/4, ♩=108) — Trio
- No.2 in D major: Äußerst rasch und mit Bravour (2/4, 1/2=92) — Intermezzo: Etwas langsamer, durchaus zart (♩=104) — Tempo I
- No.3 in D major: Leicht und mit Humor (2/4, ♩=138) — Intermezzo: Rasch und wild (6/8, 3/8=138) — Tempo I
- No.4 in D major: Ballmäßig. Sehr munter (3/4, 3/4=66)
- No.5 in D major: Rauschend und festlich (3/4, ♩=116) — Etwas langsamer — Sehr lebhaft
- No.6 in A major: Sehr lebhaft und mit vielem Humor (2/4, 1/2=72)
- No.7 in E major: Äußerst rasch (3/4, 3/4=116) — Etwas langsamer (3/4=100) — Tempo I
- No.8 in F♯ minor: Sehr lebhaft (2/4, ♩=100) — Trio I: Noch lebhafter (♩=144) — Wie früher — Trio II: Hell und lustig (♩=132) — Einfach und gesangvoll (♩=96) — Munter, nicht zu rasch (3/4, ♩=120) — Nach und nach lebhafter — Tempo I
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) composed his Clavier-Übung I in the years 1726 – 1729. That publication is a collection of six Partitas, now listed as BWV 825 – 830. The first two of the partitas consist of six movements, the others have seven. All but one of them feature the “classical” Suite elements, Allemande — Courante — Sarabande — Gigue, complemented typically with an overture-like movement, plus one or two lighter dance movements. This also holds true for Partita No.4 in D major, BWV 828:
Martin Helmchen just selected the slow(est) movement, the Sarabande, as insert between the Novelletten No.3 and No.4.
Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) published 14 waltzes. A larger number of waltzes is lost, with some, the composer destroyed the manuscript. Among the 14 “official” waltzes, the first one (op.18), dates from 1833. The following three waltzes, all published under op.34, are from the years 1834 – 1838. The Waltz No.3 in A minor, op.34/2, B.64 is one of a few in minor tonality (along with op.64/2 in C♯ minor, op.69/2 in B minor, and two more that were published after the composer’s death).
The three waltzes op.34 are sometimes referred to as Grandes valses brillantes. However, for one, this title really associates with the Waltz op.18 (E♭ major). And then, even if one were to use this title in op.34, it most definitely cannot apply to op.34/2: this is anything but brilliant in attitude. The annotation is Lento, and the waltz is rather sad. Martin Helmchen played this between the Novelletten No.6 and 7.
Liszt: “Nuages gris”, S.199
In 1881, in his late years, Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) composed a several “experimental”, short pieces, radically different from his earlier virtuoso style. One of these is “Nuages gris” (Gray Clouds), S.199: a mysterious Andante…
In the recital, this appeared as part of the last insert, between Novelletten No.7 and No.8, immediately after the “Bagatelle sans tonalité“:
The Bagatelle sans tonalité, S.216a, from 1885, is another one of Liszt’s experimental, late piano pieces. Apart from Bagatelle sans tonalité, the title page calls it the “Fourth Mephisto Waltz”. In some ways, it is mysterious, like “Nuages gris“. A third one of this kind would be “Unstern! Sinistre, disastro“, S.208.
The Bagatelle sans tonalité formed the first part of the last insert, between Novelletten No.7 and No.8, with the above “Nuages gris” immediately following.
Schumann-Wieck: Soirées musicales, op.6
Robert Schumann’s fiancée Clara Wieck, after their marriage 1839 Clara Schumann-Wieck (1819 – 1896), was a talented composer in her own right. Her father had her attend composition classes. However, a woman composing was strictly against that time’s conventions. And Clara herself did not rate her own compositions very highly. The main motivation for her activities as composer came from her (later) husband, Robert Schumann. She stopped composing after his death.
Clara Schumann’s Soirées musicales, op.6 are compositions from 1836. They are all using a theme that Robert Schumann quotes in his Novellette No.8—the final piece in the program for this recital. The op.6 consists of six pieces, out of which Martin Helmchen performed the first two:
- Toccatina: Presto (A minor)
- Notturno: Andante con moto (F major)
- Mazurka in G minor
- Mazurka in G major
The first two of the pieces formed the first “insert”, between Novelletten No.1 and No.2.
Schönberg: 6 Little Pieces for Piano, op.19
In 1913, Arnold Schönberg (1874 – 1951) published his 6 Little Pieces for Piano (Sechs kleine Klavierstücke), op.19. His work on op.19 happened at a time when he was also working on his monstrous Gurre-Lieder. However, while the latter used a very big form and apparatus, the Little Pieces are all extremely short, compact, and reduced to the absolute minimum. The composer wanted to do away with all conventions, such as form, tonality, thematic development, harmony, architecture, pathos. “My music must be short”, he stated. Schönberg wrote the pieces 1 – 5 within a single day (1911-02-19), piece No.6 on 1911-06-17.
- Leicht, zart (light, delicate)
- Langsam (slow)
- Sehr langsame ♩ (very slow ♩)
- Rasch, aber leicht (brisk, but light)
- Etwas rasch (somewhat brisk)
- Sehr langsam (very slow)
Martin Helmchen skipped the first of the six Pieces, playing Nos.2 – 6 between Novelletten No.2 and No.3.
Messiaen: Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus
Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus is a meditation on the infancy of Jesus Christ. The French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992) composed it in 1944, for Yvonne Loriod (1924 – 2010), later his second wife. It’s a set of 20 movements, lasting around 2 hours in a typical performance:
- Regard du Père (“Contemplation of the Father”)
- Regard de l’étoile (“Contemplation of the star”)
- L’échange (“The exchange”)
- Regard de la Vierge (“Contemplation of the Virgin”)
- Regard du Fils sur le Fils (“Contemplation of the Son upon the Son”)
- Par Lui tout a été fait (“Through Him everything was made”)
- Regard de la Croix (“Contemplation of the Cross”)
- Regard des hauteurs (“Contemplation of the heights”)
- Regard du temps (“Contemplation of time”)
- Regard de l’Esprit de joie (“Contemplation of the joyful Spirit”)
- Première communion de la Vierge (“The Virgin’s first communion”)
- La parole toute puissante (“The all-powerful word”)
- Noël (“Christmas”)
- Regard des Anges (“Contemplation of the Angels”)
- Le baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus (“The kiss of the Infant Jesus”)
- Regard des prophètes, des bergers et des Mages (“Contemplation of the prophets, the shepherds and the Magi”)
- Regard du silence (“Contemplation of silence”)
- Regard de l’Onction terrible (“Contemplation of the awesome Anointing”)
- Je dors, mais mon cœur veille (“I sleep, but my heart keeps watch”)
- Regard de l’Église d’amour (“Contemplation of the Church of love”)
Martin Helmchen selected the movement No.8, Regard des hauteurs (“Contemplation of the heights”), for the first insert after the intermission, between Novelletten No.5 and No.6. See below for a brief description, an idea on how it sounds.
Unlike the work descriptions above, the comments on the performance below follow the chronology / sequence of the recital.
Martin Helmchen didn’t just arrange the pieces in the order shown below—he also performed each half of the evening with very short breaks (2 – 5 seconds) between the pieces. This way, he was avoiding interruptions through applause. And each half of the concert appeared as one single dramatic unit, as a multifaceted “(re-)composition” in its own right.
Schumann: Novellette No.1 in F major, op.21/1
Helmchen took the Markiert und Kräftig (4/4, ♩=108) very decidedly, with emphasis and momentum. He nicely highlighted the triplet motifs that light up in the upper voices, and yet managed to put the “Scherzo” segment under one single, dramatic arch. The contrasting Trio, on the other hand, was very poetic, lyrical: the music was breathing with every two-bar phrase. In Helmchen’s hands, the Trio was telling stories. In its gentle talking, it reminded me of No.13, “Der Dichter spricht” in Schumann’s Kinderszenen, op.15.
The first part returns twice, with two instances of the Trio in-between. The central “Scherzo” instance is expanded by a melancholic F minor insert.
Schumann-Wieck: Soirées musicales, op.6
I. Toccatina (Presto)
Just like Robert’s Novelletten, the Toccatina is in A-B-A form. The outer parts has a restless sequence of quaver motifs in the right hand, motifs chasing each other. It’s virtuosic music, very effective, as one would expect for a composition by one of the best pianists of her time! The middle part is a Lied ohne Worte (Song without words), Espressivo e tranquillo, ben marcato il canto. And indeed, the cantilena in the top voice is a beautiful cantilena with expressive agogics. This could as well have been Robert’s! The middle voice is a continuous sequence of alternating quavers, the bass line provides a calm foundation.
II. Notturno (Andante con moto)
The Notturno (Andante con moto) is totally introverted music, full of poesy, with dramatic excursions, almost violent climaxes. But there are also segments, where the music almost appears to get lost, pondering, thoughtful / pensive. Excellent music, indeed, deep, and very atmospheric: Martin Helmchen fortunately resisted the temptation to make this sound feminine: it isn’t—rather it’s simply masterful!
Schumann: Novellette No.2 in D major, op.21/2
The structure and its annotations are
Äußerst rasch und mit Bravour (2/4, 1/2=92) — Intermezzo: Etwas langsamer, durchaus zart (♩=104) — Tempo I
The outer parts are very virtuosic, with a very fast sequence of restless semiquaver motifs in the top voice. The strong bass foundation marks the meter, and in the middle of the keyboard, there are sprinklings of short, punctuated melody segments. A masterpiece as a composition—and equally in the performance. The Intermezzo is a gentle, lyrical, tender “Eusebius” piece, with a filigree of two voices singing in an expressive dialog, telling stories—very poetic! Masterful playing overall, with finely tuned dynamics.
Schönberg: 6 Little Pieces for Piano, op.19
After the virtuosic ending of the second Novellette, I see that the first of Schönberg’s 6 Little Pieces would have been too extreme a contrast: too delicate. So, it is understandable that Helmchen started with the second of the pieces. That’s very scarce music, mostly just consisting of isolated staccato thirds. In Helmchen’s performance it was full of tension (not just playful). This way, the artist converted the restless movement from the preceding Novellette into suspense.
III. Sehr langsame ♩
The music now seemed to exhibit split personalities: rhythmically linked, the two hands appeared to perform independent characters, independent pieces even. The right hand f, legato, in connected, but seemingly unrelated, dissonant chords, while the left hand plays a very soft melody (pp, legato) in octaves. The suspense remained, in parts in the tension of this unequal dialogue.
IV. Rasch, aber leicht
Here, the tension transcends into the time domain. The piece is a sequence of very brief, rapidly, erratically changing rhythmic pattern. Its features include double punctuations, staccato, a broken chord with a fermata, a melody fragment, a compact chain of rapid martellato notes, a few, forceful staccato chords.
V. Etwas rasch
And another very short segment / piece follows: the rhythmically most regular piece, and closest to tonality, melodious even, and going though a short climax—all in less than half a minute. This originally was the last of five pieces: a (almost) harmonious ending in lieu of a traditional cadence?
VI. Sehr langsam
After Mahler’s death, Schönberg added this last piece. It consists of very slow, very contemplative, scarce chords, all pp and even softer, down to pppp—”with very tender expression” for a moment, full of extreme loneliness, disappearing into nothing.
The six pieces are very touching music, an ultra-short masterwork—and Martin Helmchen presented them with both subtle and expressive playing, indeed!
Schumann: Novellette No.3 in D major, op.21/3
The annotation here is
Leicht und mit Humor (2/4, ♩=138) — Intermezzo: Rasch und wild (6/8, 3/8=138) — Tempo I
In the outer parts: capricious, full of humor, alternating between acceleration and hesitation, fickle in the dynamics, full of brief crescendi and erratic accents: a piece that (in retrospect) appears to reflect the almost aleatoric nature of (some of) Schönberg’s pieces. An excellent complement to Schönberg’s music!
The Intermezzo (B major) starts wild, virtuosic, then seems to retract into a murmuring, grumbling undercurrent. Tension and volume rapidly build up again. A modulation leads into a second murmuring phase, and another build-up ultimately leads back to Tempo I. Martin Helmchen lives in this music, entirely with / in the piano, appears to talk with the instrument (or with the music? with the composer?).
Bach: Partita No.4 in D major, BWV 828 (V. Sarabande)
The third of the Novelletten ends with a baroque ornament on the last chord: at least, Helmchen took it as such, playing a baroque inverted cadence on the beat. I suspect that this was the reason for the insertion of Bach’s Sarabande at this point?
Here, the basic pace was very slow, the agogics almost extreme, very expressive—too much? There was no excess in romanticism in the dynamics, apart from a strong softening at double bars. However, it remained a very romantic view of Bach’s music, with the extreme ritenuto, the strong agogics in general, the very soft articulation.
Also, the additional ornaments in repeats were clearly born in / adapted to the modern piano, rather far from the ornaments that one wold hear on historic instruments. Together with the extreme agogics (rubato, rather) and the extraction of one isolated movement from Bach’s Partita, this felt like a violation of Bach’s intent as a composer. One could simply say that “this was more Helmchen than Bach“. For the first bars I could live with Helmchen’s view. However, it soon felt like “too much”.
Finally: the Novellette that followed had no connection to the Sarabande whatsoever—other than the tonality and the fact that the Partita and the Novellette are both No.4: hardly a convincing argument!
Schumann: Novellette No.4 in D major, op.21/4
Here, the pianist was truly in his element again! The performance offered broad, harmonious dynamic arches, virtuosic segments, expressive build-ups. An excellent closing piece for the first part of the recital, joyful, with drive and momentum!
Schumann: Novellette No.5 in D major, op.21/5
Helmchen’s focus here was on the drive, the momentum, but equally on harmonious build-ups and big arches. Not dry, virtuosic show, but expressive playing, exploring the cantilenas, the melodic motifs. It’s a multifaceted movement with a wide span of expressions, ending in, retracting into peaceful, comforting silence.
Messiaen: Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (VIII. Regard des hauteurs)
People not familiar with Messiaen’s music may find this “strange music”—utterly different from any other composer’s music: the composer had been spending years in transcribing bird songs into piano notation. This culminated in his Catalogue d’oiseaux, a large collection of pieces in seven volumes, altogether lasting well above two hours in a complete performance. The music closely imitates the sound of nature.
Although not part of the Catalogue d’oiseaux, this movement entirely appears to consist of the sound of birds, as the pianist later explained. Unlike in the Catalogue though, this short movement offers a colorful mix of voices, in a broad spectrum. And undeniably very typical of Messiaen’s piano music. I found the performance to be very atmospheric—maybe with a tendency towards more legato than with other pianists—a romantic view on Messiaen? At least, this would fit the context here!
Schumann: Novellette No.6 in A major, op.21/6
Apart from its length, this movement seems very close to Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Children’s Scenes), op.15: playful, with alternating moods, short outbreaks. Another piece where Helmchen feels totally “at home”: one could feel this from his facial mimics, or when he seemed to talk to the piano. I really enjoyed how he brought out the dialog between voices, and how he was able to make listeners forget about the technical challenges in this music.
Chopin: Waltz No.3 in A minor, op.34/2, B.64
Initially, the tempo seemed appropriately lento, the music pensive, if not sad. Soon, however, the pianist seemed to fall into a lighter, typical waltz pace, swaying, but sometimes (mainly in the middle part) perhaps a bit on the fluent side, until he returned to the initial theme, the initial sadness. The middle part didn’t really feel lento (slow). Was it too light? Chopin didn’t add any additional tempo annotations other than the principal Lento.
Schumann: Novellette No.7 in E major, op.21/7
In the outer parts (Äußerst rasch = extremely fast), this movement is highly virtuosic. Helmchen played it with grandiose, big gestures. However, he did not neglect the intimate second theme in the “A” part—contrasting little “windows”, short moments of warmth, before the virtuosic principal theme returns. The “real” contrast, though, is in the lyrical middle (“B”) part, which could easily be a Lied ohne Worte (Song without words) by Mendelssohn? Needless to say that with this pianist, that “singing” part received proper attention and care!
Bagatelle sans tonalité, S.216a
Helmchen brought out the erratic, momentarily grotesque, unstable, aspects of this piece. The composition makes attempts to sound like a waltz, but remains unstable, spasmodic, develops a threatening undertone (an anticipation of Ravel’s La valse?), the fireworks of a short cadenza, flickering ghost lights in the virtuosic figures in the right hand… and a mysterious ending. Technically, pianistically excellent, brilliant playing!
“Nuages gris”, S.199
An extreme contrast after the crazy excursions of the Bagatelle: mysterious, depressed, pondering without goal, without any outlook—just memories of a distant past, maybe? Helmchen caught the (missing) spirit of this piece really well, seemed to sound out the vanishing resonances, the mysteries in this music: well done!
Schumann: Novellette No.8 in F♯ minor, op.21/8
Schumann concludes the Novelletten series with the longest one—also the one with the most sections:
Sehr lebhaft (2/4, ♩=100) — Trio I: Noch lebhafter (♩=144) — Wie früher — Trio II: Hell und lustig (♩=132) — Einfach und gesangvoll (♩=96) — Munter, nicht zu rasch (3/4, ♩=120) — Nach und nach lebhafter — Tempo I
The Sehr lebhaft is vivid, almost dramatic, wild, full of virtuosic turmoil. The contrasting first Trio feels joyful, jolly, strongly reminding of No.9, “Knight of the Hobbyhorse” from the Kinderszenen (Children’s Scenes), op.15. The second Trio is really boisterous, happy, gradually fading away and ending in pp. There seems to be a closure, but Schumann doesn’t let go: there is a reminiscence of the second Trio, followed by an echo from the initial theme. But also that fermata is just a pretense, as a second part follows in the form of a march, with intermittent Trio-like segments.
I liked the clear sonority in Martin Helmchen’s playing: technically excellent, often enthralling in the expressive parts, subtly listening into the lyrical segments. Throughout the concert, he never lost the tension or the intensity of his playing!
Encore — Schumann: Waldszenen (Forest Scenes), op.82: No.7, Vogel als Prophet (Bird as Prophet)
For the encore, Helmchen turned “back to the birds” (he referred to Messiaen’s piece). He selected the No.7, “Vogel als Prophet” (Bird as Prophet) from Schumann’s “Forest Scenes”, op.82. It’s totally different from Messiaen’s birds, though. Rather, a strong reminder of Liszt’s late works: almost erratic, reflecting, daydreaming, seemingly without purpose or intent—just playful, and like an open question. There’s this mysterious middle segment that seems to anticipate the theme of the “Ghost Variations”, WoO 24 (Schumann’s last work). But then, the bird song returns, and ultimately finishes open-ended… An excellent way to conclude such a big, diverse program!
I can see why Martin Helmchen opted for a “composed, mix & match program”: it had the advantage of avoiding applause, and it allowed the artist to compose a recital with (essentially) two big logical / dramatic arches. What may be conclusive to him, though, may not necessarily work for all of the audience. For those who just want to lean back and enjoy—this may be ideal, and certainly never boring. And if there was a piece that a listener doesn’t understand: the segments are short, the next one will be just fine.
The downside is that from a musical point-of-view, not all combinations / transitions make sense. Or, at least, not all of the interrelations are obvious, not all transitions logical / natural. Extracting snippets from a bigger work in my view is questionable, even more so using these snippets in such tight connection with other, seemingly unrelated works. In a way, I feel that the result becomes Martin Helmchen’s own composition. I would definitely claim that for the Bach Sarabande. If I really wanted to listen to Bach, I certainly wouldn’t want to turn to a snippet in such a big, multifaceted context.
Finally: already at the beginning of the second part, after the intermission, I noted that the tuning of the piano had degraded. This was most obvious in the Novellette No.8, primarily in the bass register.
My wife and I might have been sitting in the darkest corner of the venue (back row in the rear gallery), so my view may be extreme. But still: the organizers probably wanted to create a special, intimate atmosphere, in which the audience focuses on the pianist. So, the venue was kept essentially in total darkness (with the walls and the ceiling painted black!). I can see this reasoning, and it does indeed have the desired effect.
However, people received program notes, which were printed in a fairly small font—with very little contrast, due to the olive background. I doubt that many people were able to memorize the program prior to the recital. And so, we saw people who were not using the smartphone screen as illumination. Actually, there were people who even used the flash LED in continuous more, as a torch, in order to read the program.
The darkness might be acceptable if the recital program consisted of, say, two big sonatas with four movements each. In such a case, should not need to look up the program, especially if such sonatas were well-known. However, here, one could see the program as a “wild mix” with 12 + 8 movements from 9 compositions / 8 composers, so I can understand if people want to look up the program notes.
My personal situation was compounded by the fact that I wanted to take notes, and ended up writing blindly. This rendered my handwriting much worse than it already is otherwise…