The careers of some classical artists are kicked into high gear by one pivotal event, such as a win at a major competition. But German pianist Martin Helmchen, who has received his share of honors, including a victory at the 2001 Clara Haskil Piano Competition, has built his now considerable reputation more gradually. “I can’t really pin down one turning point,” he said, “and I’m quite grateful for that. I always had the feeling that things came one after another, always at the right pace for me to keep up with practicing and developing as a musician.”
No one has been more integral to Helmchen’s career growth than famed German conductor Christoph von Dohnányi, who served as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1984 through 2002. The two first met about six years ago when Helmchen joined Dohnányi and the Orchestre de Paris as soloist in Dvořák’s Piano Concerto in G Minor, Op. 33, a little-heard piece that the pianist had studied in part by listening to the conductor’s well-praised recording with the Vienna Philharmonic and András Schiff. The two have regularly collaborated since, including concerts at the beginning and end (June 23) of the 2015-16 season of London’s Philharmonia, where Dohnányi has held the post of honorary conductor for life since 2008. “I would say that I owe him as much as I owe any competition I’ve ever done,” Helmchen said.
Given that close connection, it is not surprising that Dohnányi will be on the podium June 9-11 when Helmchen makes his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “I would say that the Chicago debut is the most exciting of the things coming up,” the pianist said. “It’s a very big thing, of course, and something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time now.” He will serve as soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, the first of the composer’s works in the form that Helmchen learned as a child and one that he performed during the Haskil Piano Competition. “It’s something that is in my DNA by now,” he said.
As a student, Helmchen devoted much of his attention to the big, virtuosic piano literature by the noted Russian composers, among others, but for more than a decade, he has focused primarily on the music of Beethoven, Schubert and other core Austro-Germanic composers. “It’s the repertoire where I feel the most at home and also, on the other hand, where I feel most challenged,” said Helmchen, who’s now 33. He believes it takes longer to develop a personal language and style in these works, but the results are more rewarding. “It doesn’t mean it will always stay like that,” he said. “I always keep playing and enjoying very, very much all different kinds of repertoire, and in 10 years, there may be another focus.”
Like most major touring pianists, Helmchen devotes the bulk of his time to solo recitals and orchestral performances. But he manages to reserve 30 percent to 40 percent of his schedule — an unusually large amount — for chamber music, which he finds less pressure-filled and more enjoyable. “I never go off-stage after a solo piano recital, and I’m completely happy with myself,” he said. “There is so much that can go wrong and the intensity of playing a full recital or playing as a soloist with an orchestra is sometimes so overwhelming. It takes a lot of experience, and it’s an ongoing fight to really have all the other aspects ready at the right time and be free to think about music-making and what I want to say in a piece. So chamber music in a way is bit more simple and natural, which is the reason I enjoy it so much.”
His main chamber-music partner is his wife, noted German cellist Marie-Elisabeth Hecker. They regularly present duo recitals and perform as part of piano trios and quartets, often with a small cadre of trusted collaborators. In February, for example, the two joined German violinist Veronika Eberle and French violist Antoine Tamestit for piano-quartet programs in Hamburg, Amsterdam and Zurich.
Helmchen and Hecker’s first recording together — an album featuring Brahms’ two famed sonatas for the combination — is set to be released at the end of May in the United States on the Alpha Classics label. “Somehow, it has not happened up to now that we would also get to record together,” he said. Helmchen previously had an exclusive contract with the Pentatone label and is featured on a dozen albums under its auspices, including one released in 2013 with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. But he is now pursuing freelance recording opportunities and has two more albums in the pipeline for the next few years.
The pianist typically travels to the United States two or three times a year, about as often as he can while still finding time for tours to Asia. “You can’t have much more than, let’s say, six large intercontinental trips [annually],” he said, “if you still want to work on repertoire quietly. For me, there is a certain limit and a certain time I need to spend at home to develop repertoire and new pieces and everything.”
When he is not on the road, Helmchen resides in Berlin, where he was born and undertook the bulk of his piano studies. He described the German metropolis as one of Europe’s most important music capitals and pointed out that it has three major opera companies, five symphony orchestras and dozens of smaller ensembles. “Many people say that there’s very little comparison in the world for all the offerings that Berlin has at the moment,” he said. “It’s a very special place for anybody in the arts and music.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.