By Aaron Keebaugh
In his Celebrity Series debut, pianist Martin Helmchen performed a mostly vivid and colorful evening of Bach.
Many pianists at mid-career return to the music of J.S. Bach with the hope of uncovering new subtleties that young fingers had likely missed.
For Martin Helmchen, though, Bach has always been more of a private interest. While the German pianist has explored Mozart, Beethoven, and the later romantics with varying success, Bach’s compositions rarely frequent his concert programs. And this is a shame, because when he plays this music he often takes flight, displaying an intimacy and thoughtfulness beyond his 40 years.
Mining the lyricism from the streams and eddies of the Partitas for keyboard, the focus of Helmchen’s Celebrity Series debut, calls for maintaining a balance between subtlety and flair. Helmchen tastefully walked that wire for a mostly vivid and colorful Bach Tuesday night at Pickman Hall.
Though written as teaching pieces, the Partitas blaze with difficulty. Many movements unfold fugally, requiring a keen ear for the dialogue that passes between hands. Others offer more terpsichorean delights as well as searching contemplation.
Helmchen’s program of the first, second, fifth, and sixth Partitas on Tuesday night revealed as much about him as they did their composer. His inclination to push and pull the tempo allowed for the mercurial shifts in mood to flow naturally. A gentle touch made the delicacies of the B-flat major Prelude dance. The Minuets were stately, if sedate, while the C minor Sarabande seemed to glow at a distance.
If some movements lacked the zest of beloved interpretations by András Schiff or Glenn Gould, Helmchen still asserted a sturdy momentum. He leaned into the dark urgencies of the C minor Courante and softened his tone for the Capriccio’s playful flourishes. The E minor Gavotte skipped and trotted; the ensuing Gigue flowered in a jovial conversation between bass and treble voices.
Only sparingly did Helmchen’s technique draw undue attention to itself. The G major Allemande took on more vocal arc than lilt. The Tempo di Minuetto wasn’t so much played as punched out. And the cross-hand figures of the B-flat major Gigue chugged along a little too mechanically. Crucially missing was a sense of live-wire energy.
Still, much of this performance delivered considerable beauty and vitality. Helmchen let the E minor Toccata float freely, with the fugal lines coiling into tight knots before releasing their tension. The Corrente bounded with furious intensity. Helmchen opened the throttle for a playful E minor Gigue that brought the evening full circle.
For an encore, Helmchen played the Scherzo from the Partita No. 3 with both finesse and wild abandon — the best Bach can sound from even the most seasoned performer.
Aaron Keebaugh has been a classical music critic in Boston since 2012. His work has been featured in the Musical Times, Corymbus, Boston Classical Review, Early Music America, and BBC Radio 3. A musicologist, he teaches at North Shore Community College in both Danvers and Lynn.