Martin Helmchen Live at Verbier Festival

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Bach; Liszt; Beethoven
LABELS: Ideale Audience
ALBUM TITLE: Martin Helmchen Live at Verbier Festival
WORKS: Bach: Partita No. 1, BWV 825; Liszt: Prelude after JS Bach’s ‘Weinen, klagen, Sorgen, Zagen’; Au bord d’une source; Nuages gris; Vexilla Regis prodeunt; Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 29
PERFORMER: Martin Helmchen (piano); Dir. Pierre-Martin Juban


Skiing in the winter, music in the summer, and always the rich and famous: such is the popular image of Verbier in Switzerland. The summer music festival is sponsored by Rolex, though wristwatches and glamour are the last things on our minds as the superb German pianist Martin Helmchen sets to work on Bach’s first keyboard Partita. He penetrates its counterpoint with a cleansing, unmannered beauty – wonderful food for both heart and mind. The focused purity of his artistry – no behavioural frills, no interpretative kinks – finds its match in the film’s simple camerawork. Helmchen head on; Helmchen in profile; Helmchen’s agile hands mirrored in the Steinway’s gleaming surface: these are the only visual commentary supplied.

Helmchen’s enchantments continue their grip in the cleverly contrasting Liszt selections – no wonder the audience’s heads in Verbier’s intimate church venue scarcely move. Liszt’s Vexilla Regis and the Prelude based on Bach’s Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen offer effortlessly shifting mood swings and dynamics. Breezes delightfully ruffle the glinting waters in the lovely light play of Au bord d’une source; while the late Nuages gris, most sensitively pitched, hauntingly drifts into music’s future.

Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, the final item, is judiciously paced, ringingly assertive when the composer demands it, weighted with sorrow in the middle. If Helmchen’s achievement here seems a little smaller, it may be because of the smaller scope for interior drama or the nuances of touch and tone. But we listen, absorbed, just the same. No extras; but then Helmchen is special enough.


Geoff Brown