Pianist Helmchen delivers fresh Beethoven in outstanding Chicago Symphony debut

June 11, 2016
Martin Helmchen performed Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 with Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thusrady night. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Martin Helmchen performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is not the first vehicle one would think of to make a splashy solo debut. The most Classical of Beethoven’s five works in the genre, it inhabits a world between Rococo elegance and the burgeoning Romanticism of the young Beethoven finding his own off-kilter voice.

Yet such was the case Thursday night at Orchestra Hall when Martin Helmchen made on outstanding bow with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, led by Christoph von Dohnanyi.

Helmchen didn’t do anything outre or idiosyncratic in this most Mozartean of Beethoven concertos. Yet the German pianist brought a reading of uncommon freshness and sparkling personality.

Helmchen has a sterling technique and a quirky sensibility that seemed ideal in this transitional work. The 34-year-old’s pliant, quicksilver touch seemed to illuminate every solo passage. He even managed to make a mini-drama out of  Beethoven’s familiar cadenza, making one hang on every note to see what hairpin dynamic or turn of phrase might come next.

Staying within stylistic parameters, Helmchen’s natural, simple phrasing in the Adagio had a searching spontaneity of expression that almost felt ad libitum. The performance was rounded off with a notably vivacious finale, with Helmchen’s quirky joie de vivre in synch with the off-the-beat accents. This was Beethoven playing of great individuality and distinction. Dohnanyi and the orchestra lent their soloist a polished and seamless accompaniment with refined playing fully integrated with their soloist.

The prolonged audience ovations brought Helmchen back out until he obliged with an encore—a jaunty and charming account of Schubert’s Moment musicaux in F Minor. Let’s hope this gifted pianist returns to Chicago soon for a solo recital.

Christoph von Dohnanyi

Christoph von Dohnanyi

Two early and late Mozart symphonies framed the concerto, yet offered surprisingly mixed rewards.

Dohnanyi opened the evening with Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G minor. With violins split left and right, the performance had bracing transparency as well as taut drama, the conductor leading a performance that brought out the driving urgency of the score.

The Symphony No. 41 closed the evening. Thursday night’s performance was idiomatic and well played—one jarring lapse of violin ensemble in the Allegretto apart.

Yet Dohnanyi’s clean-lined, technocratic approach seemed to be striving to consciously underplay the brilliance and revolutionary qualities of Mozart’s final symphony. The Andante was brisk and cool to the point of being bloodless. Scoring details were muted with timpani and brass failing to cut through textures at key moments. And the extraordinary moment when all five themes of the finale simultaneously take flight barely made an impact. Mozart’s celebrated feat of contrapuntal wizardry has rarely sounded so mundane.

The graceful playing of the CSO’s new principal flute, Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, provided some compensation in this decidedly earthbound “Jupiter.”

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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