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
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.
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk
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)
#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)
+The Darkened Valley, for piano (1919) [3:46]
Leopold GODOWSKY (1870-1938)
+Studies on Chopin's Etudes (1894-1914) - nos.12 and
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).