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Robert Helps in Berlin: Chamber Music with Piano
Track-listing at end of review
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559696-97 [55:36 + 62:13]

Experience Classicsonline

Though never a household name, thanks in part to an endearing personal modesty that most 21st-century artists would find baffling, Robert Helps had a considerable reputation as both composer and pianist. In 1996 Milton Babbitt described him as "not only the pianist's pianist and the composer's composer, but [...] the composer's pianist and the pianist's composer".
 
However true that epithet may be, it is no guarantee that Helps' music will be attractive to the public. This enterprising release by Naxos brings together the two facets to dispel any questions. Helps had his friends and advocates in the American avant-garde - and still does. That notwithstanding, he chose a path which, for a long time after the War, was critically unfashionable, but more or less listener-friendly - that of a broadly tonal, narrative idiom. That Helps stayed true to his ideals, and that they were vindicated, can be seen in the two loosely similar Piano Trios. They were written more than forty years apart almost as his first and last words as a composer. They are helpfully placed side by side on CD 2.
 
Helps' chamber music is generally introspective, concise, unhurried, often frigid, a paragon of clarity and coherence that is indebted to his teachers Roger Sessions and - almost inevitably! - Nadia Boulanger. Despite Helps' eschewal of the arcana of modernism, these works make clear that he was not averse to atonality or impressionism, but it is always lightly worn, contextualised and measured. The music is often Schoenbergian in feel, but also reminiscent of other composers straddling modernism and neo-tonality - Sessions most obviously, but also another of Sessions' pupils, Peter Maxwell Davies, especially in his Naxos Quartets (see review of complete set).
 
In all there are about ninety minutes of Helps as composer, and thirty-five as pianist. Slightly curiously, Naxos's only previous issue of Helps's music (review) featured three of the works repeated here - the Postlude, Quintet and Shall We Dance? - albeit in different recordings. The opening two works, the Postlude and the Fantasy, are companion pieces to the Nocturne featured on that disc, in that together they constitute the three parts of a Serenade, the movements' stand-alone performance sanctioned by Helps.
 
At the piano Helps will appeal to a much fuller audience, as he plays some of his favourite pieces, exhibiting the marvellous technique, power and expressiveness he was renowned for in his time, not to mention his Godowskian skill as a transcriber in the Mendelssohn and Ireland. If there are more recordings available to Naxos, Helps as pianist surely merits its own separate release. His own work, Shall We Dance, is not the flippant MGM-derived piece the title suggests, but a serious, complex, yet still understated work, subtle and almost tuneful, based on a 'degenerative' idea akin to Ravel's La Valse. Fittingly, the disc ends with a piece by John Ireland, another deeply respected figure who has yet to achieve the wider recognition his genius deserves.
 
This is now Spectrum Concerts Berlin's seventh recording for Naxos under cellist/founder Frank Dodge, and they continue to impress. The German ATOS Trio, who some will recognise as BBC Radio 3 'New Generation Artists', make their debut, red-blooded and cohesive in the Trios. So does Japanese-American pianist Naomi Niskala, who has already made a name for herself as a performer of Helps, with her well-received two-volume set of his complete solo piano works on Albany (TROY 925, 958).
 
Sound quality is very good in the chamber recordings. By comparison, the piano sounds slightly recessed at the Berlin recital, but the audience exhibits laudable self-control. They are almost inaudible until they applaud. The English-German notes are surprisingly lengthy for Naxos, as well as informative and stylishly written.
 
Byzantion
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk

Track-listing

Robert HELPS (1928-2001)
Postlude for violin, horn and piano (1964) [8:43]
#Fantasy for violin and piano (1963) [6:57]
Quartet for violin, viola, cello and piano (1997) [14:30]
Duo for cello and piano (1977) [8:10]
Quintet for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano (1997) [13:54]
#Piano Trio I (1957) [14:36]
#Piano Trio II (2000) [12:23]
+Shall We Dance?, for piano (1994) [11:20]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
+Love is a Sickness Full of Woes, for piano (1921, arr. Helps) [2:59]
+The Darkened Valley, for piano (1919) [3:46]
Leopold GODOWSKY (1870-1938)
+Studies on Chopin's Etudes (1894-1914) - nos.12 and 45 [8:58]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
+Schilflied, op.71 no.4 (arr. Helps) [3:53]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
+Intermezzo in A flat for piano (1943) [4:18]
Annette von Hehn (violin); Bernhard Krug (horn); Naomi Niskala (piano); Ronald Carbone (viola); Frank Dodge (cello); Marieke Schneemann (flute); Lars Wouters van den Oudenweijer (clarinet)
+Robert Helps (piano); #ATOS Trio (Thomas Hoppe (piano); Annette von Hehn (violin); Stefan Heinemeyer (cello))
rec. Siemens Villa, Berlin, 21-24 June 2010 (Helps); +Kammermusiksaal der Philharmonie, Berlin, 5-6 November 1997 (Helps - live recital). DDD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 


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