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Finesse and Immensity with Mozart and Bruckner

Martin Helmchen
Giorgia Bertazzi
Martin Helmchen

Saturday, September 3, 2022
8:00 PM

German pianist Martin Helmchen returns to Symphony Hall as the soloist in Mozart’s effervescent Piano Concerto No. 17, and Herbert Blomstedt leads the BSO in Bruckner’s colossal "Romantic" Symphony.

Herbert Blomstedt, conductor
Martin Helmchen, piano

MOZART Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, K.453
BRUCKNER Symphony No. 4, Romantic

This concert is no longer available on demand.

Concert originally broadcast live from Symphony Hall on Saturday, February 19, 2022.

Hear a preview of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17 with Martin Helmchen with the audio player above, and read the transcript below:

Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Martin Helmchen, who is happily back in Boston. And on his first trip to the United States since the pandemic began. Martin, thanks so much for your time today.

Martin Helmchen Yes, thank you. It's great to be back. Wonderful.

Brian McCreath So this concerto is such a rich piece of music, but it also, it takes a place in over two dozen concertos by this composer. And I've always kind of wondered with pianists, there's so many Mozart concertos to choose from. Where does one begin? Where do you begin as a young pianist to take on Mozart piano concertos?

Martin Helmchen Well, I do agree that this is maybe the most incredible cycle ever, probably. I mean, for piano, I would say, for sure, but I couldn't even, maybe, you know, you can't... I don't know if you want to see Wagner operas or Bruckner symphonies aside, because I don't know. But there is a consistency in the piano concertos, from, let's say, Number Five onwards, which is as one universe, I would say, unique in music history. All this beauty, all the inventions, the richness. No two movements are barely the same yeah?

And this piece is actually a hidden favorite of many pianists who have played all the concertos. It may count a little bit for the other concerto which I've played here in Boston last time, Number 22, so Number 22 and Number 17, I've heard from many colleagues, who have recorded and performed all the concertos in the cycle, are candidates for favorites, even in this competition, because there is everything in it, yeah, what makes this whole journey of Mozart concertos so special. And this one, I would say even more operatic than the others, yeah? I mean, it cannot be more, second and third movement especially, cannot be more opera in a stage setting with piano and orchestra than this. And I've played it a lot now and recorded last year, and it's just every time more joy to play it, which is incredible.

Brian McCreath That's great that we have a recording to look forward to from you. That's excellent. But I was going to ask you about the operatic quality that you mentioned, talked about a lot with Mozart piano concertos, because he was such an amazing opera composer. How much, though, when you're playing this, does that really enter your mind? Are you thinking like a singer?

Martin Helmchen Oh, yes. I mean, as a pianist, you have to think about being a singer all the time. I was grateful I had a Russian piano teacher, and in Russian piano school, this is elementary, that you sing on the piano. It's a dogma that this is one of the main things to achieve. Who is able to actually sing on the piano? It's one of the core things about playing the piano. I've been, in my early years, teenage years, even more influenced by my passion for chamber music. So playing with singers came later for me. So I've also had a lot of influence from very good string players. I've had the privilege to play with people who are better than me, a little older than me and better all my life. So I always try to achieve what they can do naturally.

Also what a wind instrument can achieve naturally with breath, because the piano, in the end, is a very simple instrument, unfortunately. And you have to kind of transform it and do a lot of magic to bring out all these sounds. And it's so much in the genetic material of Mozart's music that it comes from singing and that you have to actually sound like a whole opera ensemble. And I do think about it and all these opera scenes in this piece. Così fan tutte comes to mind at first. I have it in mind all the time, and it's just such a joy to dive into this Mozart world. And I would say, probably his best music is in the operas and the piano concertos.

Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah, yeah. And you actually touched on a couple of things that I was curious about anyway. I mean, first of all, yes, the magic of a way a pianist can make singing happen through the piano. I'm a trumpet player, so that kind of happens a little bit more organically. So what do you guys do is incredible to me. But you also touch on the Russian teaching that you had, the teacher from Russia. And I was wondering about Mozart and how it is looked at, how his music is looked at from different perspectives. You kind of answered this by saying that Mozart, from the Russian school, involves this singing quality.

Martin Helmchen Well, yeah, there's a lot more to say. So, in my personal development, I'm grateful that I had this incredible technical education as a kid and some musical principles that you can apply to all kinds of styles, yeah? Like every note, has to have a meaning, and all technical things have to be embedded in the musical concepts so that the body actually learns to do something automatically, which you want to do in the music so that everything becomes one kind of holistic apparatus, as they say. And that was something that has had great influence in my teenage years.

But then, stylistically, later on, I became very much influenced by the whole performance practice thing, period instruments, and so. And that was a great progression for me, because if you start on period instruments, you don't necessarily learn how to be a kind of, hopefully, limitless player. And if you only grow up with one certain school of style, you may miss many points with other composers. So for me, that was a very rich and very exciting journey, and I'm still looking for combining influences and getting influence in a way that, just, my toolbox becomes richer and richer to get to the core of what the composer wants to say.

Brian McCreath It's a never ending process, isn't it?

Martin Helmchen Yeah.

When you've been here before, especially your first time here, you were with Christoph von Dohnányi. You were very close with him, remain, I assume, very close with him. Now you're working with Herbert Blomstedt, you've recorded with Mr. Blomstedt. Tell me about your work with him and what he brings to your perspective on anything, but certainly this piece of music.

Martin Helmchen Yeah, he is one of the most important figures in my life. Not only musical life, but also personally. Because there is no other person like him I've ever met. I'm pretty sure everybody who knows him would say the same thing, because he has a natural generosity, simplicity, and friendliness in how he deals with people, and also with the music, combined with such insight and scope of knowledge. But not only technical knowledge, but, like, he feels and understands things on a deep level. And if this is transmitted in communication, everything with with this kind of spirit and and humbleness that he radiates, it's completely unique to me. And I've just talked about him to a friend this morning, and I wonder what's wrong with the rest of the world, with all of us? When you see a human being like this who additionally just seems to refuse to age, [at] 94, it touches me very much to see him live and interact with people and bring music to life. It's very, very special.

Brian McCreath And I'm sure this week, but certainly at Tanglewood last summer, we saw him just bring things out of the orchestra, some energy that, it doesn't even look like he's doing anything to make it happen. It's remarkable

Martin Helmchen It's happening with him, through him, yes.

Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah. Martin Helmchen, it's so good to have you back. Welcome back to the United States. And we're looking forward to Mozart. Thanks very much.

Martin Helmchen So am I. Thank you so much.