In 2016, pianist Martin Helmchen took a step which many threaten but few follow through on: He left Berlin for the surrounding countryside of Brandenburg, his four daughters in tow. His new home is close to the town of Luckau, between the German capital and Dresden, where his wife, cellist Marie-Elisabeth Hecker, is a professor at the Carl Maria von Weber Conservatory of Music. In the last five years, Helmchen has focused on raising his family and practicing his instrument. For him, the “circus” of the classical music industry is a distant concern.

The move gels with Helmchen’s image: Considered one of the best pianists of his generation, he’s been able to avoid many of the vanities that come along with such a distinction. Instead, he’s been busy recording, surveying the Beethoven Sonatas for Violin and Piano with Frank-Peter Zimmermann and the same composer’s Piano Concertos with the Deutsches-Symphonieorchester Berlin under Andrew Manze. I spoke with the 39-year-old Helmchen on video chat about authenticity, the Russian piano school, and his charity work in Rwanda. 

VAN: Were you sad that the Beethoven 250 anniversary year in 2020 couldn’t take place due to the pandemic?

Martin Helmchen: No, I hadn’t really been looking forward to it in the first place, since there’s always a lot of Beethoven on programs, and I also play a lot of Beethoven. Anyways, I haven’t really been following musical life. We have four daughters and moved out here to the countryside five years ago. These years are for being with my family. I was never really part of the circus, but I’m less so now–even as an observer or listener who takes pleasure in the music. So I can’t say that it has bothered me.

Last year, we published a list of Beethoven’s worst pieces.

That’s a competitive category.

Would you like to add any?

There are many occasional pieces where it’s clear he was just marking time. Take the pieces right before and after the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, which are Op. 105 and 107. Those would make good candidates. He obviously wrote them so he could keep his mind clear for the “Hammerklavier.” 

In a recent interview, German conductor Franz Welser-Möst said that “CDs are just publicity measures which someone else pays for.” 

That would be nice. Maybe if you’re Franz Welser-Möst. I think the statement lacks nuance.

What do recordings mean to you?

Of course they’re important for your career, but I wouldn’t reduce that to publicity measures. They are important artistically, too. It’s about documenting where you are at a given moment: This is how far I’ve come with the work. I can do the piece enough justice to be able to document it. I’ve noticed that with works I’ve recorded, I’ve internalized the music to a greater extent. 

Artists hardly earn money with CDs anymore; in many cases, making recordings costs them. Do you know how much you’ve earned from streaming?

In my case, I don’t think I’ve earned anything at all. 

But your recording of Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major with violinist Julia Fischer has been streamed some 5.8 million times. 

[Surprised] Oh really? 

You must have gotten something from that, a few cents at least?

I don’t think so. I would have noticed the income. 

In a recent interview, you said, “I don’t try to dazzle, I try to create something true.” What did you mean by “true”? 

When you do things, as a musician, as an interpreter, for their own sake, and not to reach a different goal. I see that all the time and it really bothers me. It’s been that way for me my whole life. When people do one thing to attain another: That continues to rile me up. My experiences of concerts are often divided into one of two categories: Do I have the feeling that the musician wants to touch me as a person, with something that they’re saying in the moment, or do they want to contradict someone, prove a point, get invited back, impress the audience, their teacher…? 

How can you tell when that’s happening? 

I can’t verbalize it or name objective criteria. It’s a kind of sixth sense that we all need as artists. My feeling definitely isn’t always right. 

In classical music, the term “authenticity” has become so common that it has an inflationary effect: Every musician wants to be more authentic than the others.

I actually liked the term authentic–until [German television presenter and critic] Harald Schmidt took it apart so thoroughly that now I feel bad whenever I use it.

Does it bother you that audiences and music critics are relatively easily tempted by performative authenticity? 

Yes, of course, it is often frustrating. But on the other hand, it can be such a rewarding and unifying experience when you notice something in an otherwise unspectacular interpretation which you actually heard, which doesn’t force itself on you. 

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At the beginning of your career, did you think about the effects of certain physical gestures or movements on the listening experience? 

At most, I sometimes thought about what could support my idea visually: Is this arm movement necessary for an octave jump? What things am I doing that feel to me like a holistic part of my playing, but which a minimalist could consider unnecessary poses? As a pianist, you make many movements which aren’t strictly necessary. The piano is so easy to play that you start making all sorts of motions which aren’t related to the creation of the sound. There are many different ways to play the piano, whereas with the cello you need to be much more focused and efficient in your movements. 

You were trained in the so-called Russian piano school. Your teacher, Galina Iwanzowa, was a student of Heinrich Neuhaus. Does the Russian piano school still exist, or are these categories dissolving?

It’s hard to say. Of course, the different schools are globalizing and blending with each other. When I was studying, people were already saying, “It’s nice that you can still tell at times that there was a Russian school.” But last year, I was on the jury for a piano competition for the first time. It was nice to be able to recognize what the pianists from Eastern Europe had in common: This physical, holistic approach to making the sound, which doesn’t just exist in your head–the body learns it too, it operates automatically, it’s an organic part of the process. Even the cliché of the circling arms has a real effect on the entire apparatus. Young pianists who got their education as children or teenagers in Russia or Eastern Europe do have much better technique than here in the West. I’m glad I can still observe that. 

At the same time, you play relatively little Russian repertoire. Why’s that?

It happened gradually. I learned the Russian repertoire intensively and played it often as a teenager. At some point I thought I understood how to do it. When it comes to performing Bach or the Classical composers, it feels more like a journey for which an entire life is not enough; there are always stylistic discoveries to be made, including in my own playing. There are always new solutions. My next recording project is the Six Partitas by Bach, and I’m turning everything I’ve ever done upside down. I’m learning it like someone who’s opening the book for the first time. I’ve started playing without pedal, which means there are lots of technical adjustments to be made. I’ve also been speaking with harpsichordists; listening to the pieces arranged for different instruments, and looking for the differences. Once you start it’s impossible to stop. But I like the order: First you master the apparatus, as the Russians call it, then you use it on whatever you can imagine. It’s definitely better like that than the other way around. 

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You helped found an outreach project in Kigali, Rwanda called Music Road. Why Kigali, as opposed to Berlin or Brandenburg?

It started off with a concert tour my wife was on. She felt a strong need to go somewhere where there was a more fundamental understanding of music than in our highbrow bubble. So from the very beginning, the project was for us, too. Some friends put us in touch with the music school in Rwanda, which is led by locals. It was important to us that it wasn’t white, Western people coming there and saying what “good music” is and then building up a music school, but that it was locals who lead the school and who teach classical and African music and dance in the same building.

Rwanda was a part of the colony of German East Africa. Between 1905 and 1907, the Maji-Maji Rebellion erupted there, in what is now Tanzania. Several hundred thousand Africans were murdered or died of starvation. Classical music was an essential part of German missionary, educational, and military activities in the region. It was considered a tool to “civilize the tribes” or “bring people to a higher developmental stage.” How problematic is it to go to Rwanda as a German musician and teach Western church music, among other styles?

Because there is so much initiative coming from the locals, we can go in and absorb the things which they’re enthusiastic about and interested in. We don’t have to go in like missionaries and bring in something that wasn’t there before. That’s the fantastic part. We try to be extremely sensitive, but we don’t perceive aspects of cultural superiority or colonial abuse in the project. It feels very natural. Including the fact that traditional music is practiced at the same events and in the same building. It had almost died out, because many of the people who could play it were killed in the genocide, and the young people had other problems, and weren’t particularly interested in it. That’s why we don’t feel like we’re on a slippery slope.

You collaborate with the university-focused German Christian missionary group Campus für Christus on the project. In the past, colonialism and the mission formed a symbiotic relationship in many ways: The missions were key in spreading racist ideas which legitimized the colonialist project.

We are personally connected to the Christian artist network Crescendo, which is led by our Swiss friends and our partners in Rwanda, and is formally under the umbrella of Campus für Christi. I’m certainly critical of this organization. At the same time, we’re grateful that besides music, there’s also a common language in Christianity. Almost everyone there is connected to a church. We don’t think that makes things harder; instead it makes them easier. From the beginning, it was clear that we’d learn as much from them as they would from us. You walk on the path together for a while and share your enthusiasm for music. If there’s enthusiasm for Christian forms of expression, that’s good too. My hope would be to show that all the things that went wrong with the mission a century ago can go in a different direction.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to stop missionary work, especially in a postcolonial context, entirely? The basic assumption of the traveling missionary, that he has found “the truth” and needs to convince others of it, has something essentially violent in it.

It would definitely be better to retire that understanding of missionary work, now and forever. In history, that ruined many different things in many different places at many different times. But there’s another way of understanding the mission, as part of this wonderful thing where you allow others to take part in something that inspires you, that guides you–without the slightest claim to superiority. When I think of missionaries today, I tend to think of the ones that Navid Kermani spoke of, for whom he prayed. And not the kind of thing that was common in the disreputable history of the church, which has nothing to do with Christianity–and I don’t just mean when the boundary to physical violence was crossed–and which does nothing for culture and understanding between people.

Back when you still lived in Berlin, you were active in a project that hoped to “translate the fundamentals of the Christian faith into daily Berlin life”: fewer traditional rituals, an emphasis on experience and emotion, Mass in the movie theater, relaxed forms of address, a contemporary aesthetic… Would you like to make similar changes to classical music culture?

I’d have nothing against that, as long as it doesn’t lean too heavily toward the superficial, showing only bits and pieces of the real thing. It has to let people open themselves up to a certain depth. But I think it’s bizarre that there are churches which find more creative solutions than the classical music industry. What’s the drawback of looking for more radical concert formats? I think it’s embarrassing if churches are more open, more modern, more creative than classical music.

As a musician, isn’t it painful to listen to Christian rock, though?

It is, a little. But you can bring it up to a level where it’s a bit less painful. ¶

... earned degrees in development studies, Asian studies, and cultural anthropology from universities in Berlin, Seoul, Edinburgh, and London. He is a founder of VAN, where he serves as publisher and editor-in-chief.