Martin Helmchen’s Almost-Too-Serious Schumann

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 10

One cannot help but admire and respect the meticulous workmanship, the tonal refinement, the painstaking balances, and the care over voicing that Martin Helmchen brings to his Schumann playing. With minimal rubato, expressive complexities manifest themselves throughout Waldszenen by way of distinct and sophisticated legato and detached articulations; listen to Verrufene Stelle’s impeccably controlled dotted rhythms and super-calibrated dynamic gradations, or to Jagdlied’s joyous yet full-throated chordal passages. Yet the playing often lacks a sense of lightness and phantasmagorical character.

For example, Maria Joáo Pires shapes the short staccato chords and unison runs in the introductory measures of Jäger auf der Lauer with more variety and dramatic momentum in contrast to the relatively square Helmchen. In Vogel als Prophet notice Helmchen’s slight hesitations between phrase statements and his focus on nailing the arpeggiated decorations with the accuracy of an atomic clock. But Pires’ poetic flexibility, Ciccolini’s forceful projection, and Cortot’s atmospheric timbre transport you to another world.

Similar virtues and drawbacks apply to the Symphonic Etudes. On one hand Helmchen’s strong rhythmic focus and sense of long line sustains interest in the rambling finale, while he justifies a deliberate tempo for Variation Three with impeccably-contoured shaping of the canonic writing. At the same time, Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s more vocally oriented trills and wide interval leaps impart added urgency to the baroque-ish Variation Seven, whereas Helmchen’s earnest accuracy is a relative non-event. Incidentally, Helmchen places Schumann’s five posthumously published additional variations at different points within the body of the main text. Helmchen is best with the Arabeske’s flowing, intimate sections, but his stiff over-dotting in the march episode knocks this version out of the running. In all, an uneven yet gorgeously engineered disc.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Waldszenen: Pires (DG); Symphonic Etudes: Richter (Olympia); Arabeske: Rubinstein 1961 live (RCA)

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