Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
Piano Concertos: No. 13; No. 24
Martin Helmchen (pn); Gordan Nikoli?, cond; Netherlands CO
PENTATONE 5186 305 (Hybrid multichannel SACD: 56:15)
DVD: Artist interview and session impression
This is the debut CD of Martin Helmchen, prize-winning 25-year old German pianist whose career received a boost when he won the 2001 Clara Haskil Competition. Though opening salvos fired by so many young pianists today often come in the form of Mozart, it can be a risky business; bad Mozart-playing can signal the quick end to a career because the nature of the music exposes so many strengths and flaws. Even now we see so many CDs released by “name” piano-players who really don’t have a clue as to how to handle the composer. Helmchen, I am happy to report, has found the key to the puzzle, and acquits himself very well indeed.
First to the “bonus” DVD—it contains a brief session extract that to me seems staged. The artist is extolling the advantages of SACD and how wonderful it all sounds, and how regular CDs can’t measure up. Well, PentaTone is a company that is dedicated (happily, in my view) to the Super Audio format, so I can’t expect that he would say anything else. The interview is interesting, the pianist discussing his early years, how he became involved with the piano, etc., in some quite intelligent conversation. The middle movement of No. 24 is given in its entirety, so the whole thing comes off as quite pleasant, though it would not affect my purchasing decision; these “extras” rarely do. I should note that my DVD player, not equipped to play every DVD region code in the world, does actually play most of what I need it to, but not this time; I had to resort to the PC in order to watch it.
I compared this to three other recordings, just to get some sort of benchmark. No. 24 is perhaps Mozart’s more operatic piano concerto, the opening as
-like as anything he wrote, and then the big dramatic entrance of the piano, just like the entrance of a soprano. It all has to be done properly or the effect is ruined. Clara Haskil in her early sixties recording understood this, and that recording has stood for some as the bar to be reached. But there have been other fine recordings, and George Szell and Robert Casadesus certainly achieve great things for the most part, though I am not as happy with that pianist’s first statement. More recently an EMI recording with Piotr Anderszewski and the Sinfonia Varsovia shows the pianist hitting his stride in just the right manner, but the sound is slightly bloomy and receded. Helmchen and forces are on spot. The opening strings have to sound dark and mysterious, and this is best achieved by making the articulation
and less detached; this makes the opening
with the brass more effective and striking, especially if they come in with a sharper distance and greater
between the chords.
The sound on this issue is sumptuous; you will not hear finer, more articulate clarity in the orchestra on any other recording that I know of, and the piano sounds simply marvelous, clean, bold, and rich. The surround is very effective, truly enhancing the vagaries of the listening space, and providing a direct and effective aural focus.
Helmchen completes this recital with the first concerto of Mozart he ever played, the lighter and more playful No. 13, though hardly baby-banter either. This was one of a trilogy that Mozart wrote in 1782 after the first flush of
Abduction from the Seraglio
success, and he even scored the work so that the lack of wind instruments would not be a barrier to performance or sensation. To those who subscribed to his “Academies” he offered the concertos as manuscript copies. These deals proved quite lucrative for the composer, and brought a large number of people to his concerts.
This sunny C-Major work is not in the same league either in profundity or technically as some of the later more mature pieces, but it is still immensely enjoyable (as are all of the concertos), and one can see brave amateurs tackling the work in their homes and parlors. Helmchen plays it with all due seriousness and jollity, bringing out the piece’s inner counterpoint and lovely lines (and jokes) with a tongue-in-cheek wit that bodes well for his approach to this composer in general. This is well worth hearing for those just building a collection or those with 5,000 Mozart concerto discs already in their collection. I suppose
people will buy anything anyway, but this is one they needn’t feel will uselessly occupy shelf space. Unreservedly recommended.
FANFARE: Steven E. Ritter
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Piano no 24 in C minor, K 491 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Martin Helmchen (Piano)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Written: 1786; Vienna, Austria
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