The world isn’t exactly short of brilliant concert pianists — it’s sometimes hard to turn around without knocking one over — but Martin Helmchen stands out even in that remarkable crowd.
Still in his early 30s, Helmchen has been winning praise in Europe for his high-powered performances, and his effortless virtuosity was abundantly on display at the Terrace Theater on Saturday, where he performed as part of the Hayes Piano Series of the Washington Performing Arts Society. But it wasn’t so much the young German’s technique — which truly is spectacular — that made the afternoon memorable as it was the distinctive poetic imagination that he brought to virtually everything he played.
The program itself didn’t veer too daringly from the beaten path: a mix of mainstream German and Austrian works, with Schubert’s great “Wanderer” Fantasy as the linchpin. But Helmchen seemed to find a sense of freshness and discovery in every work, from Bach’s Partita No. 4 in D Major, BWV 828 (in a magnificent, slightly chilled reading), to an exceptionally vivid and detailed account of Schumann’s Waldszenen, Op. 82. A collection of nine “forest scenes” that range from the simple melodies of “Einsame Blumen” (Solitary Flowers) to the feverishly colored “Vogel als Prophet” (The Prophet Bird), Waldszenen is Schumann at his most elusive and complex, and Helmchen turned in a subtle, and often enchanting, performance.
Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major, D. 760 was the climax of the program, and Helmchen gave it a big-boned, heroic performance that brought the audience to its feet. But the real surprise of the afternoon may have been Anton Webern’s Variations for piano, Op. 27. Webern’s often thought of as a cold-hearted serialist, smiling cruelly as he cuts his music to its bare essentials, but in Helmchen’s hands the Variations came to life, wonderfully warm and animated and even charming.
In all, a fascinating and deeply rewarding concert, which closed with a piano transcription of Bach’s serene and infinitely beautiful Chorale Prelude Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (I), BWV 639.