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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 37 [34:25]
Triple Concerto, Op. 56 [35:25]
Martin Helmchen (piano)
Antje Weithaas (violin)
Marie-Elisabeth Hecker (cello)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Andrew Manze
Piano Concerto No. 3 recorded at Berlin Philharmonie, Feb 2020
Triple Concerto recorded at Teldex Studio, Berlin, Sep 2019
ALPHA 642 [70:02]

Back in 2018, when he was still a relatively fresh face, I absolutely loved Martin Helmchen’s Alpha recording of the Diabelli Variations. I haven’t heard him in Beethoven since, but this disc alone is a worthy contribution to 2020’s Beethoven 250 celebrations. This team have now released three discs featuring all of the concertos involving a piano: this is the only one I’ve heard, but it’s a winner.

Much of that is definitely down to Helmchen’s piano playing. Playing a modern grand, he gives us a full-blooded Romantic sound, but it’s never cloying or over-indulgent. Instead it’s smooth, rich and often very poetic in approach. He makes the first movement of the third piano concerto sound more lyrical than you’d expect in manys a contemporary performance, but there is no loss of drama or energy: instead he plays with laser-like focus and a real ear for colour. He plays the composer’s cadenzas, for example, but he makes them entirely his own with some lovely flecks of colour and discrete shaping of phrases.

After the grand first movement the opening of the Largo is tender and assuming, relatively fast in tempo but achieving a blissful blend with the orchestra. Helmchen sounds almost playful in places, and that’s even before he launches the steady-paced finale. The Rondo isn’t a fast-paced mischief machine, like that of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s recent set, but it still bristles with life, and the final gallop sparkles with, for the first time in the piece, jollity.

However, Andrew Manze and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin are every bit as much a part of the disc’s success. The orchestral sound throughout is clipped and lean, and the (natural?) timps and brass sound excitingly raw: the opening tutti of the piano concerto sounds like a wild beast pawing the ground, waiting for the opportunity to spring, and this sets the tone for an interpretation that is lithe and exciting throughout. Maybe there is a slight lack of force at the big climaxes, such as the launch of the first movement recapitulation, where I would have liked a bit more punch. However, they contrast this nicely with the soft-focused slow movement, and the sound as a whole is lovely.

However, the real gem here is a superb performance of the Triple Concerto. Aside from the fact that it’s three times more expensive to perform than any of Beethoven’s other concertos, I have never understood why this is the ugly duckling among the set. I’ve always loved it to bits, and this performance went straight to my heart. It surely will to yours, too. Just listen to the lovely, silky cellos and basses of the opening, and the ensuing orchestral chug that builds up the excitement brilliantly. The tuttis are clean and focused, even at the beginning of the recapitulation, with its magisterial strings and bristling trumpet fanfares, and there is a gorgeous hue hanging over the all-too-brief slow movement, before a final Polonaise that has as much Úlan as it has swagger.

The solo trio are a complete hit, too. The solo strings use vibrato, and the solo cello positively drips with it (I loved that!). Helmchen responds in kind by playing as part of the team, never drawing undue attention to himself. This performance doesn’t have an ounce of ego; instead it feels like pals playing for fun. Their entry in the first movement overflows with sunshine, with and warmth. They trip with delightful delicacy towards the end of the development, and chase after one another’s lines in the coda. It’s all wonderful, and the whole performance makes me wish I’d been at their rehearsal sessions: they must have been fun!

Alpha honour them with deep, rich recorded sound, featuring a wide range that's really comfortable around the ear. The packaging is pleasing, too, with a particularly thoughtful essay about the concertos from Jan Swafford, the composer’s celebrated biographer.

All told, then, a hit! The Triple Concerto is particularly good, the best I’ve heard since Howard Shelley’s, and definitely one of the Beethoven 250 releases that I’ll be playing for many years to come.

Simon Thompson

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