When I met the pianist Martin Helmchen on
an early afternoon in February of 2009 in the Mozarteum in Salzburg,
he was about to practise for a concert that evening. We had just
missed each other earlier, and now the schedule was threatening
to fall apart. Without hesitation he sits down and apologizes
for a misunderstanding that was entirely mine. A slightly disorganized
Mozarteum employee interrupts our conversation, trying to arrange
at least ten minutes of pre-concert play-time, lest he would have
to practise on an un-tuned piano. Which, Helmchen agrees with
very mildly enervated understatement, “would be unfortunate”.
He speaks softly, in long, mellifluously twisting sentences. Although he might come across that way, to describe Helmchen as shy would be missing the point. He is merely not prone to boast, there is nothing ostentatious in the way he acts, and he exudes genuine humility. Where colleagues of his have success being ‘loud’, Helmchen succeeds quietly. I imagine it could be easy to underestimate him and his playing, and concert audiences or record collectors casually familiar with his work might wonder why he enjoys the relative prominence of being Pentatone’s go-to guy for standard classical/romantic repertoire. But Martin Helmchen’s interpretations are not pale or indistinct, they are subtle and their value unfolds, inexorably, over time. Eschewing gimmick and fad, he plays with understated feeling and authenticity.
“That’s one of my great ideals in music: to be authentic” he says, “and the conviction that if you are, the result can still be interesting a hundred years from now. If people involve themselves in standard works with their own particular experiences and skill, and do so in an honest, profound way, respectful of the music, then I think the result will always be different and always new. Therefore the question whether it’s still interesting to perform or record classic works doesn’t even come up. If you seek for the music to become one with yourself, then such works will necessarily be always new again.”
I ask him whether he has the same mindset when recording as he does playing a concert — or whether he thinks of other recordings, what others have done, and he likes to or would do differently. In other words, how self-conscious is the process of recording?
“I don’t really notice a difference between a concert and performance. It’s always about finding your own way to the core of the piece and occupying yourself with other recordings should never get to the point where you start copying elements. But of course it’s impossible not to be influenced in some ways by other interpretations and that will always be the case. It’s an ambivalent relationship for me: You get enthused about certain interpretations and maybe grew up with specific ones, but you have to emancipate yourself from that so as not to repeat others’ views. Those views are in the back of your mind, not unlike with composers. What Bach composed builds in some ways on what Schütz or Monteverdi or Buxtehude had done, composers that knew and appreciated each other but always created something new. Interpretations function similarly. Do your own thing, find your own way and live it through playing. And if that’s ingrained, the process is not conscious at all. I don’t sit down thinking ‘Oh, I should play this part in Haydn like pianist X or Y. Afterwards, of course, it can happen that you listen to it and you realize that you found similar solutions on your own as some other artist. But with works so abundantly meaningful or sophisticated, that’s not likely to occur very often.” The process, he agrees, is not unlike every-day language where phrases or terms are learned, adopted, and adapted from others — parents, teachers, writers — but the tone remains invariably one’s own.
Doesn’t this make CD reviews meaningless to the artist in musical territory that’s so well explored since — barring technical imperfections and given the impossibility of an “ideal performance” — the critique would be essentially of Martin Helmchen’s personal approach to, say, Schubert? A critique would essentially be a statement of agreement or disagreement with the way in which your interpretation gels (or doesn’t) with the legitimately different expectations of someone else.
“It’s subjective or relative, matter. It’s about my personal ideal as a musician: To hit upon the truth in the music, to find what it’s about, and how I can, with my abilities and limitations, express that. And if you have made your way through a work like the D959 sonata, which needs years of grappling with, and if you have had good conditions in which to record them, then the whole process has become so big, that you become independent in your attitude. You rely on, and maybe fear, your own judgment more than anything. What’s important is whether I think that the recording can communicate what I see in the work and what I wanted to express with it. And if that were not the case, it would be bitterly disappointing. After so much preparation with so much work poured into it and, more so than in concert, the claim for it to be a sort of stock-taking of what I want to say with the work now
“And as far as reviews are concerned: It’s disappointing when intentions you had are not heard (or noticed), but yes, when it is just a matter of taste, then that doesn’t quite affect you. The whole ‘too much or too little rubato’, ‘it sounds too much like Beethoven or too romantic’, I don’t pay much attention to, to be honest. But when essential things in a work are not picked up on, I do pause and I will listen and figure if that’s right or how it could be done. But my own judgment of whether that comes through what the piece means to me, that’s rather more important to me.”
Martin Helmchen has a contract with the audiophile company Pentatone and at the time he had two recordings out: the Schubert sonata referenced above and a disc of Mozart piano concertos. Schumann and Dvorák concertos with Marc Albrecht and the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra have been released since, as has the first volume of Schubert’s complete works for violin and piano. He shows me his digital recorder with a Schubert Trout on it, on which he has been checking the edits. For this Trout
recording, Helmchen was given carte blanche
to assemble musicians of his choice. He chose the bright violinist Christian Tetzlaff, the vibrant violist Antoine Tamestit (an ARD prize winner) and veteran double-bass player Alois Posch. The cellist he picked is Marie-Elisabeth Hecker. “It’s simply a dream cast”, he laughs at the question at why he picked exactly these musicians “They were the first people I asked. Marie-Elisabeth (championed as a soloist by Valery Gergiev) was an obvious choice since she is not just my girlfriend but also one of the finest musicians I have ever heard and met.”
“With Christian and Antoine I’ve played on festivals several times and one needn’t really add anything about them. They’re one-of-a-kind musicians and have very similar ideals about music to mine. And Alois Posch was the first double-bass player for the Vienna Philharmonic and is a very active chamber musician who I think has already recorded seven Trout
s in his career. Once you start playing or rehearsing as an ensemble, you realize immediately whether you all have the same goals. … getting to the core of the music rather than using the music as a means to show what I’m capable of doing musically. This ‘using’ of a piece to put myself forward in order to show how I can express myself and my musical means is exactly the opposite of what these musicians stand for. It’s like that old Brendel quote that if he comes of a particular school of pianism at all, it’s the school that the composition teaches the interpreter in how it ought to sound, not the other way around. I’ve since met many friends in chamber music circles who share my enthusiasm for making music in this way, and that of course includes those that I get to play the Trout
Where is the line between a more playful approach to the score — not necessarily to please one’s ego but presumably for the benefit of the work or the listening enjoyment — and treating the score as sacrosanct to the point where Rudolf Serkin didn’t play a particular Beethoven sonata at all, because he could not get Beethoven’s suggested fingering right?
“Well, I think liberties are wanted, by all means … and often enough they are already part of the composition. But it probably depends on the framework. In a Mozart concerto, there is so much room for taking joy in sheer virtuosity. And when that’s the intention and takes place as part of this genial structure of Mozart, contributing to the greater impression, it’s wonderful to improvise with ornamentation as it was done back then. But when I do that in parts where Mozart or Schubert wanted something else in the music, it becomes inappropriate.
“Schubert, for example, doesn’t strike me as suitable for that playful approach. He even said himself: ‘Is there jolly music? I know of none’. Even when he writes dances they’re infused with a good deal of seriousness. But Mozart is a good example where you can be true to the spirit of the work without slavishly following the text. If you listen to the older generation of pianists who knew the score very well, too — Schnabel or Backhausen, for example — they take so many liberties. Admittedly that was a very different way of making music, then. Old recordings of Kempff sometimes make you think: what is he doing there … added notes, instances of changed articulation and dynamics, all things that are not in the text but perhaps express what that passage means still better. That’s a fidelity to what the work denotes.”
That seriousness shows in the Trout
at hand. The fourth movement of the Quintet picks up the theme from Schubert’s song The Trout
. It’s a bubbly theme, usually sung (and played) with quick-witted buoyancy — but the theme of betrayal (and incarceration) isn’t a particularly happy one. Helmchen and crew pay tribute to that and deliver something altogether more sober, though far from heavy or heaving. The entire recording has a touch of the sober, with Helmchen setting the unfussy tone that serves as the base for occasional dashes of brilliance by Teztlaff, brief but telling touches of searing intensity from Tamestit, gamely common sense from Mlle. Hecker and Posch. “Variations on Trockne Blumen
for flute and piano” (Aldo Baerten on a wooden flute) and the Notturno for Piano Trio D897 complete this exceptional release.
Jens F. Laurson