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Mendelssohn: Piano Concertos No 1 & 2 / Helmchen, Herreweghe, Royal Flemish Philharmonic

Mendelssohn / Royal Flemish Phil / Herreweghe
Release Date: 09/28/2010 
Label:  Pentatone   Catalog #: 5186366   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Felix Mendelssohn
Performer:  Martin Helmchen
Conductor:  Philippe Herreweghe
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Number of Discs: 1 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.

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MENDELSSOHN Piano Concertos: No. 1; No. 2. Rondo brilliant Martin Helmchen (pn); Philippe Herreweghe, cond; Royal Flemish PO PENTATONE 5186 366 (SACD: 55:02)


I was introduced to these two delightful concertos by Murray Read more Perahia and Neville Marriner in their 1975 CBS (Sony) release, and these quicksilver performances are still what I hear in my head when I think of these works. Perahia’s performances remain in the catalog, and despite brightly lit analog sound, are very much in the running for finest recording of these lighthearted showpieces. I was equally taken with the Schiff/Dutoit versions when they made their appearance on CD in the early days of digital, Schiff being, if anything, even more brilliant and fleet of finger. Thibaudet’s (and Blomstedt’s) big-boned traversal of these scores was less pleasing at first, though the extra weight certainly does not come at the expense of dazzling passagework. Thibaudet’s Mendelssohn, played “as fast as possible provided that the notes can be heard” as the composer preferred, simply strikes me as a bit aloof, impressive as it is.


No one would ever call this new recording by the talented young (at 28) German pianist Martin Helmchen aloof. The 2001 Clara Haskil competition winner, an exclusive PentaTone artist, has now recorded seven releases with the Dutch label, including some very fine Schubert chamber and solo music, two Mozart concertos of notable lucidity, and an acclaimed release of the seldom-recorded Dvo?ák Piano Concerto. The delicacy of touch and graceful phrasing of the Mozart, in particular, promised an interesting outing with the Mendelssohn, and so it has turned out. Helmchen is not as flashy as Perahia or Schiff, preferring to emphasize warmth and expressiveness over precision and sheer velocity, though he lacks neither. There is an appealing geniality to the opening movement of the Concerto No. 1 that gives a good impression of the performances to come. The lovely but rather indulgent poetics of the Andante raise some concerns about fussiness, and the fanfare leading into the Presto finale—shades of A Midsummer Night’s Dream —could be more brilliant, but overall the soloist compensates with playing of sensitivity and, in the finale, dazzling energy.


As with the very different Thibaudet, though, it is the D-minor Concerto that responds best to this artist’s approach. The initial darkness is emphasized by Helmchen’s understated opening, but the proceedings don’t stay low-key for very long. Like the French pianist, he sees this as a much more substantial statement than anything in the rather frivolous G-Minor Concerto, so he and Herreweghe give it weight but refuse to drive the movement as hard as Thibaudet does. It and the following Adagio are lovingly shaped, with more rubato than either Schiff or Perahia allow themselves. Helmchen and company round things off with a Presto scherzando that, after the opening bars, is less about digital fireworks than amiable farewells. Nicely done. The seldom-heard Rondo brilliant is primarily about fireworks, however, and both soloist and orchestra indulge themselves enthusiastically.


Helmchen has the notable quirk of underlining quieter passages by exaggerating the dynamic and slowing the tempo, in a couple of instances almost to a stop. The effect borders on the precious, though I can’t say it ever crosses the line. Some will see it as exquisite, or spiritual, and I won’t argue. Some listeners may object to the orchestra’s restrained application of vibrato, and the hard sticks used on the timpani. Others may feel that the accompaniment is a little too discreet compared to Marriner or Blomstedt. Still, if Helmchen won’t displace Perahia and Schiff in the pantheon, he certainly can join them as a compelling alternative. And given the sound of this release—warm, detailed, nicely balanced, and with just the right amount of sharpness to the piano to make it sparkle—this may well be the audiophile’s first choice.


FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
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Works on This Recording

1.
Concerto for Piano no 1 in G minor, Op. 25 by Felix Mendelssohn
Performer:  Martin Helmchen (Piano)
Conductor:  Philippe Herreweghe
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1831; Germany 
2.
Concerto for Piano no 2 in D minor, Op. 40 by Felix Mendelssohn
Performer:  Martin Helmchen (Piano)
Conductor:  Philippe Herreweghe
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Flemish Philharmonic
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1837; Germany 

Sound Samples

Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25: I. Molto allegro con fuoco
Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25: II. Andante
Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25: III. Presto
Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40: I. Allegro appassionato
Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40: II. Adagio - Molto sostenuto
Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40: III. Finale: Presto scherzando
Rondo brillant in E flat major, Op. 29

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