BEETHOVEN Diabelli Variations (Helmchen)
No sooner does Alpha release Filippo Gorini’s solo debut CD featuring Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations than the same label issues another set of Diabellis in weirdly close proximity, this time with Martin Helmchen. Talk about marketing amnesia! In any event, Helmchen’s commanding pianism and perceptive musicianship hold their own in a competitive catalogue.
Helmchen follows his brisk and energetic dispatch of Anton Diabelli’s waltz theme with an opening march variation that manages to be maestoso yet animated at the same time. He controls Var 2’s broken leggiermente chords with the utmost precision, bringing the dissonances to the fore, and eloquently addresses the dolce directive in Vars 3 and 4. Var 5’s repeated-note phrases have a bouncy lightness that Gorini doesn’t quite match, although the latter’s ferocity and grit in Vars 7 and 8 differ from Helmchen’s cooler vantage point. In the lyrical Var 8, Helmchen’s shimmer and transparency contrast with Gorini’s broader expressive gait. Helmchen brilliantly sprints through Var 10’s rapid staccato chords, while really making those few moments of legato articulation distinct. He generates riveting tension in Var 11 by ever so slightly holding back at the ends of certain phrases, in contrast to Gorini’s more generalised execution.
Gorini is relatively heavy and plodding in the humorous Var 13, whereas Helmchen imbues the music’s question-and-answer trajectory with a sense of surprise and comic timing that I have not heard since Charles Rosen’s classic recording. While Var 14 is on the slow side, Helmchen’s sustaining power and rapt concentration take your breath away, as do his amazingly lithe and supple repeated chords in the scherzando Var 15. To be sure, Helmchen telegraphs the sudden tempo changes in Var 21 that Gorini makes more abrupt, and why his fussy tapering with Var 22’s gruff tribute to Mozart’s Don Giovanni? The minore triumvarate Vars 29 31 stands out for Helmchen’s long lines and classical reserve, while his pinpoint contrapuntal clarity in the pentultimate fugue (Var 32) is strikingly antipodal to Gorini’s faster pace and exultant abandon.
In sum, the overall high distinction of Helmchen’s Diabellis overrides my few quibbles. I look forward to Alpha’s next Diabelli Variations release in six months’ time.