Martin Helmchen: performing Schumann’s underperformed Novelletten

Thursday, January 25, 2018 - 13:08

A lot has been written about Martin Helmchen. The pianist has garnered rave reviews and gushing comment-pieces from respected titles ranging from The Guardian to The New York Times. But what does the man himself think about his music and the challenges of performing?

Ahead of his performance for Southbank Centre at St John’s Smith Square in February, Helmchen gave an insightful interview with International Piano magazine. In the publication, the pianist explained what drew him to perform Schumann’s rarely played Novelletten, here in London.

‘In the Novelletten we find some of Schumann’s most beautiful inventions,’ he told IP, ‘they embody everything we love Schumann for, and are in some ways exemplary for Schumann’s idiosyncrasies. Ingenious ideas everywhere, appearing so sudden that one can hardly follow the links, with new worlds created in an instant.’

A complex piece, and one, which undoubtedly throws challenges at the performer, in terms of how he or she interprets these new ideas as they are presented in the score. As Helmchen undoubtedly agrees, ‘To find the hidden dramaturgy in the course of the many different sections, which often feel so loosely linked, is a very hard task,’ he told IP. So how does the pianist approach this? ‘I tend to think of the pieces as individual, very subjective experiencing of stories… For the different sections I often imagine scene changes in a play, or doors between rooms. Like walking through a castle at a festive event, finding a new world behind each door.’

The world isn’t short of brilliant concert pianists, but Martin Helmchen stands out, even in that remarkable crowd
Washington Post

The Novelletten were termed ‘underplayed works’ in Joan Chisell’s classic 1967 study of Schumann, and fifty years on they remain seldom heard and rarely programmed; so why is this? ‘Playing all of them in a row is very challenging for both the performer and the listener,’ explained Helmchen to IP, ‘they are less coherent in ‘cycle terms’ than many other Schumann works… yet one may also find it less satisfying to choose single pieces from the set’.

A graduate from the Hanns Eisler Music Conservatory, as a student of Galina Iwanzowa, and from the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hannover as a student of Arie Vardi, Helmchen began studying the piano at the age of six. From the moment he emerged onto the classical scene he has turned heads and earned recognition, winning the International Kissinger Klavierolymp Competition in 2003, and picking up the Crédit Suisse Award for his 2006 debut with the Vienna Philharmonic, directed by Valery Gergiev.

Constantly developing his approach and honing his impressive skills, Helmchen told IP how he sees the links between music and literature as a key means to get closer to composers’ works. ‘Very often a piece of music that seems enigmatic opens up all of a sudden by just one line from a letter or a contemporary book (or any other written piece of information). As the lifeworld of, say, 19th century composers was obviously very different from ours today, I find it crucial to get as close as possible to them and to what they wanted to say’.

Under [Helmchen’s] beautifully regulated touch, phrases arched and connected with a fluidity that always felt natural in their unfolding
Chicago Tribune, on his performance of Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2

Martin Helmchen plays Schumann’s Novelletten and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations at St John’s Smith Square on Wednesday 7 February.

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