Martin Helmchen’s sublime artistry shone through in Brahms’s First Piano Concerto in Dresden

GermanyGermany Dresden Music Festival 2023 [13] – 7.6.2023, Kulturpalast, Dresden: Martin Helmchen (piano), Dresden Festival Orchestra / Ivor Bolton (conductor). (MC)

Ivor Bolton conducts pianist Martin Helmchen and the Dresdner Festspielorchester © Oliver Killig

Schubert – Symphony No.9 in C major, D.944 The Great (1824/26)
Brahms – Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15 (1854/58)

Festival highlights come thick and fast. This concert by the Dresden Festival Orchestra, the festival’s own orchestra, was conducted as usual by Ivor Bolton, its indefatigable chief conductor. The Dresden Festival Orchestra perform with period instruments, gut strings and period bows, valveless horns, baroque trumpets etc.

Part of the festival’s Playful Keys series, this Kulturpalast concert provided the audience with an engaging programme. We heard a pair of the most famous and much loved of all works in the standard orchestral and concerto repertoire, namely Schubert’s Symphony No.9 in C major The Great and the Brahms Piano Concerto No.1.

The Dresden Music Festival is scrupulously managed so I confess to being a little worried when the concert didn’t start on time. The orchestra and audience were waiting for Bolton to enter the stage. Maybe he was late? Maybe he had been taken ill? Well, all became clear when after what seemed like ages three trombonists, who one guesses had been held up by traffic, appeared and took their place in the orchestra. Only then did Bolton enter the stage and step up to the podium.

Perennially popular with audiences and musicians, the opening work Schubert’s C major Symphony known as The Great was written in 1824/26. In the main German speakers know the Symphony as No.8 using the Deutsch numbering system. English speakers know the work as the Symphony No.9 in C major, D.944. Commonly known as The Great, this title serves to distinguish the No.9 from his Symphony No.6 also in the key of C major.

Destiny ensured that when Schubert died in 1828, aged just thirty-one, he had not heard his masterwork performed. Fortuitously some ten years later Robert Schumann had unearthed the C major score in the Schubert music archives that Franz’s brother Ferdinand Schubert was presiding over. The symphony was premiered posthumously in 1839, eleven years after the composer’s death when Mendelssohn conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus. In his own particular way this is Schubert matching himself to the older Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 in D minor having attended a performance in 1824 the same year he commenced his C major score.

This is a lengthy and stamina sapping work. Undaunted Ivor Bolton and his Dresdner Festspielorchester maintained critical levels of expertise, concentration, and energy throughout. Striking were the emotional stirrings Bolton created in the Andante and in the generous proportioned Scherzo I relished the clarity of the vibrant dance melodies given with no shortage of heft. Best of all, under Bolton the Finale became a thrilling and pulsating journey and the symphony concluded with a grand burst of energy. I had no problem with the pleasing sound of the period instruments, soon becoming accustomed to the rich strings using minimum vibrato and compared to their modern counterparts the slight difference in woodwind and brass sound.

After the interval Bolton conducted the Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor played by stylish Berlin born soloist Martin Helmchen. A much sought after pianist both in concert and in the recording studio, I have admired Helmchen’s set of Beethoven piano concertos with the DSO Berlin under Andrew Manze on Alpha Classics. Brahms began writing his First Piano Concerto in 1854 and reworked some previously written material. His music cannot have failed to have been affected by deteriorating mental health and a suicide attempt by his close friend and mentor Robert Schumann. This was Brahms’s first truly large-scale work for orchestra and as a piano concerto the most ‘symphonic’ that had been written. At the premiere of the D minor Concerto at Hanover in 1859 Brahms was soloist and Joseph Joachim conducted.

As the Dresden Festival Orchestra uses period instruments Helmchen elected to play a piano of the period. No detail of the period piano was provided however it was built by Paul McNulty (Divišov, Czech Republic) and I believe it was a period copy of a concert grand after French maker Boisselot (c.1846). More importantly, in the marvellous acoustic of the tKulturpalast the Boisselot piano sounded mightily impressive as did the orchestra’s period instruments.

It was a joy to watch Helmchen as he gave a performance that was sincere and expressive, and captured the splendour of the writing. Opening the concerto was the huge and thrilling movement Maestoso where Helmchen and Bolton’s players demonstrated they were up to the challenge. At this point I felt the timpani was too loud although thankfully it did lessen in volume. There was a profound lyrical compassion to the Adagio that was eminently satisfying, and in the Finale marked Rondo – Allegro non troppo Helmchen resolutely revealed the differing temperaments that Brahms had embedded in the movement.

Compelling was the sublime artistry of Martin Helmchen that shone through so brightly in the concerto. With such demanding works it was my privilege to witness the communication between the Dresden Festival Orchestra and conductor Ivor Bolton as a true meeting of minds.

Michael Cookson

Footnote: My experience from regular reporting of German orchestras in particular shows how their orchestral players walk on the stage from both sides in a coordinated manner. I am unsure why their British counterparts tend to traipse on the stage in a haphazard fashion which can seem disrespectful to audiences.

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