Martin Helmchen turns urbanely into Diabelli’s attractive Waltz, something of a country bumpkin here, and it is immediately apparent that the piano is superbly recorded, granted an imposing bass and a not-too-bright treble. And what a performance!
Beethoven’s diverse and imaginative Variations are each given their full flavour by Helmchen and, for all the extremes, are also integrated across the whole. Throughout one is astonished at Beethoven’s magnanimous response to Diabelli's trifle, and in turn by Helmchen’s insight into Beethoven’s ingenuity. Helmchen is as interpretatively persuasive and as technically commanding as any pianist in this music, and more so than many in terms of revelations, in conquering this Everest among piano literature – tempos are ideally judged, dynamics, touch and clarity are discriminatingly realised and illuminating, characterisation is vivid, and listening is a compelling experience.
Especially wonderful are the slower numbers, a rapt stillness falls over them, transporting in effect, one might say Heaven-sent, beginning with Variation XIV, which is sublimely the requested Grave e maestoso, whereas, for contrast, XVI is scintillating, a (friendly) panther running rings round the listener, and for once the quotation from Don Giovanni (in XXII) belongs.
And so it goes on. As the work charts into fathomless depths – Variation XX is almost subliminal – so Helmchen conveys a breathtaking spirituality, Bachian in effect, every note part of a sacred tapestry, such as the Fughetta that is Variation XXIV, or the spacious trilogy (markings include sempre cantabile and espressivo) that is XXIX-XXXI, music of wonderment, private yet sharing, offering solace. With the final Minuet, elegantly shaped, we are back on Earth, and the concluding journey’s-end – simple – chord suggests it was all a dream. The reality is that this is a great recording.