Robert Schumann’s Noveletten (1838) is a set of eight pieces for piano marked by strong contrasts between the lyrical and the turbulent. Berlin-born Martin Helmchen recently used them as the mainstay of his solo piano concert in Baden, but interjected selections by other composers – Clara Schumann, Arnold Schoenberg, J.S. BachOlivier MessiaenFrédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt – as they relate to, or owe a debt to, Schumann’s piano genius.

Martin Helmchen
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Here in Baden, the Piano District series venue is the local newspaper’s former print floor, reconfigured for use as a concert hall. Deep in the belly of its building, and seating an audience of some 240 listeners, this remnant of the pre-digital era has little glamour or false allure. Any musician performing must make his or her way to the podium beetween the gap in chairs, like a lonely sailor whose last-minute body checks or brow-wiping are open to public view. Yet with the artist seeming one of us, the rather unconventional configuration always makes for an intimate concert experience. What’s more, the acoustics are very good.

By using Schumann’s Noveletten to draw a broad dramaturgical bow over the whole evening, Helmchen took a bold approach. Having cited music as "the most beautiful and highest expression of something unspeakable", he is known to delve into the centre of works he performs to explore the possibilities of new interpretation. In the Baden programme he related Schumann’s innovation to expressions of music both before and after the German composer’s time. That said, with the hall lights dimmed and the concert programme only in small-point print on dark paper, it was close to impossible to follow the sequence of works being performed. Where did one piece end and another begin? Just that, though, was the meat of the message: the remarkable counterpoint and dissonances in the Schumann’s Novelletten, striking in their own right, could also serve as pointers to the works and genres of other major composers, both before and after him. 

As Helmchen played, he would bend low into the keys then bolt backwards on the last note of a fulminant passage, as if recoiling from an explosion. His fingers sometimes paused for half a breath before an attack, and once or twice he quickly yanked a long lock of hair behind an ear. Nevertheless, the performance lacked the showiness to which other virtuoso pianists sometimes fall prey. Here, instead, it was only the pianist’s innate connection to the work at hand and the weave in and out of a community of musical expression that underscored the story he wanted to tell.

The second Novellette, for example, äussert rasch und mit bravour (extremely quickly and with bravura) included a jettison of notes that made even today’s communications speeds pall by comparison. Next, Schoenberg called his Six Little Piano Pieces (1913) lean, yet they included passages that carried the heavy weight of melancholy. Schoenberg himself cited unconscious connections in the piece: “A human being is always subject to many feelings”, he would contend, each one which “goes its own way”. The signposts Helmchen chose to use were such cross-threads in music and its vast spectrum of human expression.

After the third of the Novelletten, the chronological arch went back to J.S. Bach, whose tightly configured, dance-like Partita no. 4 in D-major (1729) was played with such brilliant intonation that the familiar piece took on entirely new colour. Like a poet at the keys, Helmchen seemed to illuminate it from the inside. Such crisp precision must be demanding enough, but in the fury of the fourth of the Novelletten, the pianist’s tempi and muscle engagement were so legion that, upon leaving the stage for the interval, he had to recover by helicoptering his arms around his head like a child hoping to fly. 

First on the programme after the break, a boldly energetic fifth Novellette previewed “Contemplation of the Heights”, the eighth piece in Olivier Messiaen’s 1944 suite, Vingt regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus. In this meditation on the infancy of Jesus, and seeming almost in a trance – sometimes even talking to the piano keys – Helmchen set the same magic that had once expanded the language of the Impressionist composers. Finally, bright and rhythmic works by Chopin and Liszt fell inside the three last Novelletten, which he marked with an explosive finale, charged even further by a huge arc of his arms in the air to finish. That signalled a mission accomplished, but also marked the creative triumph the Baden concert had been.