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Martin Helmchen's Bach Partitas, with Celebrity Series of Boston

Martin Helmchen
Giorgia Bertazzi

Sunday, January 14, 2024

On WCRB In Concert with the Celebrity Series of Boston, the German pianist illuminates four of J.S. Bach's intricate, poetic Keyboard Partitas.

Martin Helmchen, piano

Johann Sebastian BACH
Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825
Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826
Partita No. 5 in G Major, BWV 829
Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV 830

This concert was recorded on December 6, 2022 at Longy School of Music's Pickman Hall, and is no longer available on demand.

Learn more about upcoming concerts for the Celebrity Series of Boston.

Read Celebrity Series's program notes for this concert.

Hear a preview of the program with Alan McLellan and Martin Helmchen using the audio player above, and read the transcript below:


Alan McLellan Alan McLellan here with WCRB In Concert and so glad to have the opportunity to have Martin Helmchen and his recital on our program. Very excited to meet Martin Helmchen today as well.

Martin Helmchen Hello. Thank you. Likewise. It's great to be here. Thank you.

Alan McLellan This is an all-Bach program and I know you've been working on Bach for...certainly this year. I wonder, what was your first encounter with Bach?

Martin Helmchen Oh, wow. That is for a child growing up in Germany, starting playing instruments at an early age...that's a difficult question. Probably it would have been Christmas music, I would assume either advent cantatas or the Christmas Oratorio would most likely have been the first thing that I've heard as a child.

And even if I don't remember the precise piece, it has made, as anyone can imagine, a very, very deep impression, like deep on every human level subconsciously, and has definitely added to the whole wish to become a musician, and to this love for Bach's music. That is really something particularly dear to me. So even people who are not in musician's households or don't go for instruments, I think in Germany, or in Europe in general would grow up in one way or the other, even if they don't remember precisely which tune it was also. But he is with us.

Alan McLellan And what drew you to these particular pieces? Have you worked on them for a long period of time?

Martin Helmchen Yes. I mean, you said for probably a year, it's more like ten years [laughs] actually. It's very, very difficult because Bach was, amongst many other things, also one of the greatest keyboard composers of all time. It's peculiar because playing modern instruments, it is a kind of transcription what we play, because of course the works that we play on the piano were written for the harpsichord. But it's a general spirit of keyboard writing. That's why the transcriptions work so well and why you can even make arrangements for very different instruments like accordion, for instance. And it would still work and the music would still be the same.

So having said that, there are just so, so many masterworks, like peak works, that are worth spending a life with, like The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Goldberg Variations, Art of the Fugue, and so many others. But somehow the partitas, in some way, I always felt the closest to. There's something about the partitas that maybe even in this competition of peak works, make them my favorite oeuvre by Bach. So, as for me, it takes particularly long with Bach to really, really find my own language and get into it and really work out the pieces much longer than with Mozart, Beethoven pieces, for instance.

That's why I decided I would really thoroughly go for one thing and work on the six partitas for a couple of years, play them in recitals as single works in the program, but also play all six as a cycle, which I've now done many times. And now I'm also in the middle of the recording process on an old instrument, actually on a historic instrument, which is yet a very different thing from the modern Steinway.

Alan McLellan So is this a piano, or is it—

Martin Helmchen Well, yeah, I don't even know the English term. It's called "Tangentenflügel" [tangent piano] in German, so "Flügel" is just grand piano and "Tangente" has something to do with the sound production. It's kind of an instrument under the radar that even keyboard players would hardly know anything about. It's from 1790 and the sound production is close to Clavichord, which is also a rare instrument, which Bach loved very much. The first impression is rather harpsichord-ish, but then you realize soon that you actually can do dynamics, which makes it very, very different from the harpsichord. And the feeling, that's why I felt really drawn to it, is more like a very early Hammerflügel [fortepiano], like early classical instrument that classical period that Mozart would have used.

So historically, it would be the Carl Philipp Emanuel [Bach] time, and nobody has played Johann Sebastian Bach on it. But somehow via a friend who said, "You should try our instruments" in Köthen actually. I fell in love with this instrument, and particularly with the combination of playing Bach's music on the instrument and bringing out completely new things. So now it's quite difficult pianistically, actually. I'm always between the worlds because I keep playing alternating concerts on the old instrument and recording, and on the new Steinway, and it's always quite an adopten [sic] process, but it's also extremely exciting and rewarding.

Alan McLellan So that instrument would work the same way as a piano with hammers and some that right?

Martin Helmchen Well, it's actually a kind of hybrid. It's different from anything else that we know. There are aspects, you know, like this, the sound impression, the actual technical production, how the string is hit, and the feel on the keyboards. But it's actually nothing like all of the other [keyboard] instruments that we know. It's very different. And that's why I thought it's so relevant, because I had the feeling that I'm hearing the music for the first time as fresh as if I would...I don't know...know only modern piano recordings, and hear a harpsichord for the first time, or vice versa. I feel that the scope that it adds to the music, and the means that you can use is as exciting, it's as much a leap in getting to know new facets of the pieces as with the harpsichord or the modern piano, and that's why I found it so exciting.

Alan McLellan Back to the pieces themselves for a moment: you said that these have a special meaning for you, and is that…does that have to do with the way that they work technically, or is it more the space that Bach was in when he was writing them?

Martin Helmchen It's a good question. I think it's probably a combination of the emotional content being classical dance suites, actually, but opening the way so much into almost a romantic idea of character pieces because the characterization of each dance is so clear and so deep and so emotionally capturing right away. And plus the factor of pianistic creativity, which just is limitless in this cosmos of six partitas. There's no two movements which are closely the same. They were all completely different.

If you wouldn't know Bach's genius, you would think [they] cannot have been written by the same composer, because texture and style and everything is so infinitely inventive and diverse. And then there are just some things I would say, particularly in Partita No. 4 and 6 that go so far in the emotional expression that I don't even know any other Bach pieces who exist in the same emotional world, that there's a philosophical feeling about them, which even Bach didn't reproduce anywhere else, I feel, and which also hasn't been done afterwards. So something really, really unique that I feel if I wouldn't be playing this pieces for all my life, I would really, really miss something very precious.

Alan McLellan You can think of it in analytical terms, but then you can also just think of it in experiential terms. And I think that he was probably thinking of it in both those ways as well, I imagine.

Martin Helmchen Absolutely. Working with contemporary composers, I'm reasonably amazed that they care relatively little about the performer knowing the compository [sic] tricks and the structure of how things are made, starting with Anton Webern, actually, from whom I read documents about first performances that he...when the pianist was asking about certain structures. And so he was actually guiding the attention away, always, from the structural, conceptual thinking towards the emotional and the experiential, as you said. So I think from a composer's perspective, that is important. And with Bach, the tempting thing is that both branches are equally fascinating. You know, there have been so many books written about the structure and the symbolism of numbers and proportions and everything, and you can really indulge in it. It's really fascinating.

But for a performer, I would probably say that transmitting the emotional content to the audience—and of course, it's a big translation—work today because the music is very old. And the great thing about the greatest masterworks is that there is something universal that will still be as emotionally fulfilling 500 years from now as it is today, and as it was at the time. But it's hard work to find the way, how to translate it coming down also to very practical things. I'm playing without pedal on the modern piano, which pushed me much further, I think in being forced to find articulations and to find playing techniques, how you would sustain notes and how you articulate things—

Alan McLellan Yes, I was amazed to see at the concert that your foot was firmly planted on the floor.

Martin Helmchen Yeah, yeah. But then you need to adjust as a player and as an audience. So just as an example for very practical things on a harpsichord, it's not a topic. Of course there is no pedal; neither there was a pedal on the organ. So for all the keyboard instruments that Bach wrote for...but on the modern piano, you're very much used to it. And then finding a way how to translate this sound which may come across as dryer in the beginning, how you can translate this into cantabile singing quality, instrumental, orchestral qualities and so on. These are great challenges.

Alan McLellan You still have the advantage, I guess, with a piano of having the dynamic range—

Martin Helmchen Yes.

Alan McLellan —available to you that you wouldn't have.

Martin Helmchen Yes, of course. This is of course, the main factor why it is a relevant option to play the old harpsichord pieces on the modern piano. Because there are many things that you can only bring out in terms of voices and structures, even only bring out in a way that a neutral listener would understand. I mean, if you have a scholar who knows the score inside out, there are other things that are more satisfying on the harpsichord.

But presenting the music in a modern day concert hall is of course much...I don't want to say easier, but works much better, if you can shape lines and if you can do dynamic phrasing and copy more, that's an—all time pianists ask—copy other instruments that Bach, loving arrangements himself, so much did. So playing lines in these harpsichord pieces, the way that a singer would play them, or that a continuo cello group would play them. And that does bring out very important things in the music that otherwise the modern audience wouldn't hear.

Alan McLellan Could you help us think about each of these pieces that are on this program? You played [Partita] 1, 2, 5 and 6, and having to reluctantly, I'm sure, leave out 3 and 4—

Martin Helmchen Yes [laughs].

Alan McLellan —but these were written at different times, and yet with a singular purpose, right? This is my understanding of it.

Martin Helmchen Well, there is still this old peculiarity that it's called "Clavier-Übung," and that in the old thinking, with a musician being a much more universal professional than we are today, it's even a bit odd that they were written with a purpose, like education. And for modern thinking, it almost sounds like etudes. And you think, "Why? Why etudes?" Why they so great?

Alan McLellan You think it's something you have to go to school to learn, so it's boring by definition.

Martin Helmchen Exactly. And everybody who has played piano has had some terrible hours [laughing] spent with etudes, with just boring scales and so on. So I don't think it has much to do with it this, this title, "Clavier-Übung," so I don't know keyboard study or so what it means. So at this time, things were much more connected. You didn't learn things to become a specialist only on the keyboard, so they were all composers and they could improvise. And Bach with all these multitasking things as a "Kantor" [music director] in Leipzig, what he had to do is a good example for university musicianship that was just ordinary at the time. So the purpose of the pieces shouldn't distract from the scope, which is very clear from the beginning, that these are meant to push the boundaries of the suite and of emotional content in music and of creativity, of harpsichord writing, pushed them to the outer limits.

Alan McLellan So the first one was like 1727 or something like that. And then several years later, once he had them all put together, he did this big publishing effort.

Martin Helmchen Yes. Yeah. Which was a kind of opus one, which is also peculiar, which also says how different things worked at the time, how difficult it was to find a publisher and to present yourself. And there are some theories that he maybe had a seventh partita in mind, which probably would have been in F major, if you look at the relations of the tonalities, which is a very tempting thought, what would that have sounded like? But part of why I love to play these six pieces in concert all together is that they work so incredibly well as a cycle, although probably Bach never had in mind that they would be played in one go. I mean, not probably, for sure. That would have been a very odd thought to him that one would play for an audience, all these six pieces in one go. It's a way, a very modern concept.

But this is also what makes music history so exciting. So I feel that we get a bird's eye perspective on this cosmos. Like if we are playing something like the Diabelli Variations, or other works, which I've recorded in LA, very much like Messiaen Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jésus, which is also a cycle of two 2 hours and a quarter, very similar [length]. So it gives an impression of entering a cathedral and having one big thing presented, which is too much to take in, so no listener in almost two and a half hours can follow every detail.

But it is using this picture of a cathedral, it is an impression that in a small church you wouldn't get. There is a feeling about it, a feeling of greatness and of scope, which I find a very unique artistic and human experience, which transmits a lot about Bach's music and about the genius of music. I've had this experience myself, for instance, in concerts of András Schiff, who is a great Bach player who I admire very much, that through the build-up of the recital, you understand different things about the music and you feel very different, almost like a changed human being afterwards. It's different from hearing only one partita at a time.

Alan McLellan So are there different things about these, could you characterize each of these?

Martin Helmchen Oh yeah, they are very, very different. [Partita] Number One is...probably, it's one of the most popular and probably the one which comes to you the most immediate right away. Also the one I've played first already as a teenager, something that makes you love the language of the music right away. And very pure, has something naive in the very best sense about it in terms of purity and clarity, and...yeah, beauty that kind of reaches you without detours right away. And then this very showy showpiece kind of gigue at the end with the crossing hands, which is also a very, very fun piece, which is unlike anything else in texture that Bach wrote, or that anybody else [wrote].

And in a kind of crossing hands showpiece texture that I would more expect from Scarlatti, for instance, then from Bach, who normally didn't do these things very often. And then [Partita] Number Two, also one of the most, probably the most played, I would say, because it's extremely rewarding in the symphonic set-up, with this sinfonia in the beginning, you get grand scope right away from the beginning, more like an organ kind of writing in the beginning than harpsichord actually. And also an orchestral feeling about it. Extremely difficult, technically. Extremely emotional in an almost romantic sense, I would say.

This is why, for instance, the piece is loved most by people who normally wouldn't play Bach. Like Martha Argerich, for instance, has a legendary recording of that piece, and she wouldn't play much Bach. But this is a piece that has also by the juiciness of the texture, and the difficulty and the virtuosity in the last movement has something extremely attractive about it. And then number five is the one that I struggled the most with in technical terms, where the playing without pedal is particularly difficult. In the wonderful Sarabande, for instance, which is an extremely intimate scene, like from the Christmas Oratorio, a shepherd scene or something. Altogether, the partitas [are] extremely diverse in character, very, very witty, very "capriccioso," very "concertante" in the first prelude, it's also a very virtuosic feeling, which is a grand kind of concerto like opening.

And then the most difficult gigue, which I find the most difficult single piece in all the six partitas with wild trills and rhythmical games that make you dizzy each time you play it, and I assume also as a listener. And then [Partita] Number Six is probably the one I'd have to say I love the most of all of them because as I said in the beginning, it just goes to depths of expression that are very...that is even difficult to talk about because it's so dear to me. One thing which is everywhere, omnipresent in this partita is the use of chromaticism; chromatic scales, mainly downwards, which give a feeling of mystery. And very often, of course, rather painful general tones, and a feeling of philosophical expansion of expression, which, as I said, I don't find in in any other piece—which doesn't mean that it's not also very witty and inventive.

In the corrente, for instance, with rhythmical games, and with a very peculiar gigue again, which is written, notated in a way that there is no aspect of three in the rhythm, which a gigue has to have all the time. There's always...a gigue is in three, so either in the small meter or the large all-bar meter, but the way Bach notates it, it's only in twos and fours. And people have come to very different conclusions about what it should be. Most harpsichordists go for a reading that kind of over-dots [the rhythm], it may sound too musicologically, but I hope the point it comes across that over-dots the upbeat so that you get actually triplets. So instead of that [mimics rhythm strictly as notated], it becomes [mimics rhythm when upbeat is over-dotted]. And then you have a rhythm of three.

Alan McLellan Kind of like swing [laughs].

Martin Helmchen Exactly. That's exactly what I was about to say. If you listen to this on a harpsichord, after a couple of minutes, you are so in a grooving, jazzy mode that you can't get out of it. It has a hypnotic quality, even. I find both versions valid and interesting, and the music is very different. Also the one in two [duple meter], it's more strict and more static, but there is a feeling are in a certain frame that you can't get out, and has something hypnotic in a very different sense. Not so much the groovy, jazzy thing, but the chromaticism becomes more evident in the in the foreground. It's more like a stricter type of fugue, which it is.

So I decide to do the first time around in the way that it is actually written, and then the repeat with the dotted triplet "groove", so to say, because I find both bring something out that is in the music that is really, really fascinating, and it also makes the piece more diverse if you have a repeat played in a very different mode. So this is also, this is things that I don't know from any other Bach piece that even knowing what basic rhythm he meant is a very, very interesting challenge and can lead to very rewarding different musical results. So the work on these pieces is kind of endless.

Alan McLellan Not to say it's a blank slate, but there is a sense in which your interpretation of it means a huge amount. And the individuals—

Martin Helmchen Exactly. And that was also a thing in Baroque times that the part of the player was much, much bigger, because of that thing that I said before, that everybody knew so much was much less specialized, knew so much about music in general, and would also more likely have played different instruments and so on. The part of the performer was, and the freedom that the performer had, was much, much greater. So performances would have differed much more than what we are used to today. And then all the art of ornamentation, of course, and of improvisation, little cadenzas on fermatas and so on. This is something that we, with a lot of effort, have to try to relearn today because it has been completely, completely lost in classical education.

Alan McLellan Could you articulate what feeling you would like the audience to go away with after hearing all these amazing pieces?

Martin Helmchen Well, that's a general question after each concert, because the beautiful thing about music being so abstract and then so immediately appealing at the same time, [the] beautiful thing is, of course, in parts that everybody carries something completely different, and the message that comes across is very subjective and may feel very, very different to each listener. But with Bach, [an] important aspect, I think for me would be the sharpening of the senses and emotions. That one gets to adjust the way we listen and the sensitivity for things that you really need to focus on, and then in the end are more rewarding than anything else.

There's different music with different qualities, but also with different aims, like entertaining music, which can be fantastic music that is written to create an immediate effect on you, which can be very strong, but then also vanishes more quickly. But I feel that with Bach, the impact, if we really listen and really get into it, is the longest lasting impact on us, and on me, of any music, that I really feel in some mysterious is changing us as human beings because the balance of all the factors of the intellectual, ingenious construction, and the depth of the emotional content and this human and the spiritual quality, above everything, is so rich and in such perfect balance, that if you learn how to listen to Bach, you will learn on a mysterious level many, many other things in life. It is a very holistic influence, I feel, and that is part of why I think he's the greatest composer of all.

Alan McLellan Martin Helmchen thank you so much for your time today and for this recital of Bach, and we look forward to hearing you playing many other things, including Bach, in the future.

Martin Helmchen Thank you so much. Thank you.