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Recording Reviews


Robert Helps Complete Works for Piano, Volume 1Robert Helps: Complete Works for Piano, Vol. 1
Naomi Niskala, piano
Albany 925
79:02 total time





American Record Guide:

The music in this first, generously filled volume of solo piano works by the late composer-pianist Robert Helps has a wistful austerity. Shall We Dance, from 1994, is an homage to a previous era of waltzes; ambiguously tonal, it sounds a bit like early Berg. Valse Mirage floats by like a waltz from a dream. In Retrospect, Nocturne, Radiance, and Music for Left Hand all have a lugubrious elegance. The second of two Postcards is livelier and brighter than most of this somber stuff, with a surprising tonal ending. The program closes with a welcome burst of unaffected lyricism: skillful and colorful song transcriptions of works by Mendelssohn, Ireland, Duparc, and Chabrier. My favorite pieces are a series of homages to Faure, Rachmaninoff, and Ravel, all from 1972, which have Helps's coolness and sharpness yet capture the sensibilities of these three composers with love and intelligence. The Faure piece is simply gorgeous, and shows that Helps could write a beautiful tune when he wanted to. Naomi Niskala is a bold, rigorous, poetic champion of this tough-minded but eclectic composer. Helps's legacy is in good hands. The recorded sound is forward and extremely realistic. This is definitely a series to watch.

Selected as one of the "Discs of the Month" for August 2007

Selected as one of the "Best of the Year 2007" discs

The first of two volumes devoted to Robert Helps' complete piano music inaugurates a project that many listeners will consider long overdue. Helps' aesthetic is hard to pigeonhole. It draws upon the craggy, post-war serial aesthetic that many American academic composers embraced, plus the contrapuntal rigor of Roger Sessions, with whom Helps studied. At the same time Helps' splendid ear for textural refinement and linear elegance can be traced to his love for Fauré and Ravel, as well as his lifelong interest in Romantic-era pianists such as Ignaz Friedman and Josef Hofmann.

While a fastidious sense of logic and formal balance governs Helps' note choices, chord voicings, and register deployment, he often leaves dynamics, tempos, and phrasing to the performer's discretion. What most impresses me most about Naomi Niskala's solid, intelligent, and caring virtuosity is that she is fully attuned to the substance and spirit of these works, yet does not feel compelled to emulate Helps' own performances.

I often heard Helps in private and in concert, and I can attest to his internalized sense of rhythm, geared toward long phrases. While Niskala certainly is a colorist, she focuses more on details and rhythmic momentum. For example, the central climax of Shall We Dance attains greater urgency and compactness as Niskala propels the music ahead, whereas Helps takes more time and employs more pedal in his live performance released by Naxos . She also plays up the Nocturne's thorny mood swings more overtly than in Alan Feinberg's equally authoritative yet more darkly lit traversal on an out-of-print Argo recital.

Valse Mirage, Helps' contribution to C. F. Peters' The Waltz Project, doesn't sound quite so hazy and dreamlike as its feathery passagework implies, yet the so-called "New Romanticism" movement had not yet arrived when Helps penned his then-unfashionably tonal (and drop-dead gorgeous) Three Hommages, arguably his most accessible piano opus. Although Niskala's scrupulous account of the Fauré homage doesn't match the shimmering overtones and soaring freedom Helps brought to his performances (and his 1989 CRI recording), she shapes the Ravel Hommage's delicate stepwise descending phrases with jewel-like beauty and precision. And whereas Naxos ' Daniel Blumenthal takes 10 minutes over his protracted, weighty, gothic treatment of Radiance, Niskala's faster, more line-oriented interpretation clocks in at a little more than five minutes, and sounds like an altogether different piece.

The recital concludes with four ravishing examples of Helps the transcriber in Chabrier's Chanson pour Jeanne, Duparc's Testament, Mendelssohn's Schilied, and Ireland 's Love is a Sickness Full of Woes. Whenever possible, the booklet notes offer Helps' own commentaries about each work, framed by a splendid introductory essay by Niskala herself. Needless to say, I look forward to Volume 2. [ 7/9/2007 ]

- -Jed Distler

Fanfare Magazine:
Superficially, the music of Robert Helps has a chameleon-like quality, as he flits from chromatic density to lush tonality and to combinations of both. But, in the manner of that greatest of musical chameleons, Stravinsky, a distinctive personality shines through in all of his work. Helps began his musical life as a pianist (he was a student of Abby Whiteside), and, by his own admission, a musical conservative, with a particular fondness for Fauré, Bax, and Ravel that continued throughout his life (he died in 2001). It was via his composition teacher, Roger Sessions, that his vision broadened to include a modernistic side.

This new release constitutes Volume 1 of the complete solo piano music of Helps. The works are mostly short and, by virtue of their complex textures, very demanding. The pianist, Naomi Niskala, writes that the scores �leave many choices up to the performer in regards to dynamics, rubato, phrasing, pedaling and voicing.� Niskala has chosen a moderate approach in these matters, following the linear energy of the music and calmly emphasizing the richness and rather baroque ornamentation. Although she demonstrates angularity and power as the music requires, the overall sense that one comes away from an immersion into this music is an appealing dreaminess.

Not surprisingly, Helps is at his most adventurous in a 1977 work dedicated to Sessions, Fantasy Fontana , but even this work, with its abstract turns and corners, has an essentially romantic nature. His fondness for dance rhythms is very evident, most notably in the large scale waltz construction Shall We Dance , but more hauntingly in the beautiful Valse Mirage. The esthetic vision of Helps is reflected in the composers he honors with homages (Fauré, Rachmaninoff, and Ravel) and song transcriptions (Chabrier, Duparc, Mendelssohn, and Ireland ). This is some of the most effecting music on the collection, which is not to take anything away from his original works, as these seven pieces are full of the imagination and technical aplomb of Helps, in the manner of Liszt's song transcriptions.

As a composer in a turbulent artistic era, Helps was happy in his own isolated world. If such politico-esthetic matters do not concern you and those seven composers that Helps honors are your musical cup of tea, I highly recommend this collection of solo piano works of a modest American iconoclast master, and look forward to the next volume. The production is, as usual with this label, very thorough, with a number of notes by the composer, and excellent lifelike sound, with nicely balanced perspectives and resonance.

- Peter Burwasser



Robert Helps Complete Works for Piano, Volume 2Robert Helps: Complete Works for Piano, Vol. 2
Naomi Niskala, piano
Albany 958
64:28 total time


Selected as one of the "Discs of the Month" for November 2007

In July, 2007 I reviewed Albany 's first of two discs devoted to Robert Helps' complete piano music, with no inkling that Volume 2 lurked around the corner. If you type Q11039 in Search Reviews, you'll find my general overview of the late composer/pianist's hard-to-pigeonhole aesthetic, along with my enthusiastic endorsement of Naomi Niskala's scrupulously prepared, intelligent, and loving interpretations. Suffice it to say that these comments amply apply to Volume 2.

The early 1952 Fantasy shows Helps testing his compositional sea legs under the influence of his mentor Roger Sessions and, at times, early Schoenberg. Added atonal rigor and rhythmic intensity characterize his three Etudes from 1956, so much so that the 1959 Recollections' delicate textures and neo-impressionist harmonic flavor either will come as a shock or a relief. Similarly, the restless yet transparent counterpoint throughout Quartet (a 1971 cycle consisting of four pieces) contrasts to Starscape, a brief, charming mood painting from 1964 that Niskala rescued from oblivion (Helps omitted it from his list of works).

As before, the booklet notes offer Helps' wry and insightful commentaries about each work whenever possible. The warmth and presence of the sonics do full justice to Niskala's colorful sonority. In short, this release and its predecessor address a major catalog gap with the utmost distinction.

--Jed Distler

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