About this Recording
8.559696-97 - HELPS, R.: Chamber Music with Piano - Piano Trios / Piano Quartet / Quintet / Duo (Helps in Berlin) (Helps, Atos Trio, Spectrum Concerts Berlin)
English  German 

Robert Helps (1928-2001)


Robert Helps is not only the pianist’s pianist and the composer’s composer, but he is the composer’s pianist and the pianist’s composer, for, since his teen-age performance of music that was deemed unperformable he has played incomparably compositions which other pianists could not or would not perform. The singular pianistic mastery which he brought to these performances moulds his own writing for piano, from which pianists have discovered resources of nuance, rhythmic subtlety, dynamic control and sound, which endow their own playing with a new sensitivity and sensibility. His chamber and orchestral compositions are not pianistic transcriptions but the fresh realization of the same awareness in these non-pianistic media. He long has been a legend in his time, and he deserves it.
— Milton Babbitt, 1996

The Chamber Music of Robert Helps

Robert Helps and Spectrum Concerts Berlin are closely connected. The history they share is rooted in transatlantic cultural tensions and connections, which are Spectrum Concert Berlin’s raison d’être. In a more personal sense it is rooted in Helps’s “double life” as a composer and a performing musician. Both kinds of musical professionalism came for him from one source. He stressed the importance of live performance and imbued each of them with a special character. The interpreter must have appropriated a work in order to present it to the public with his own stamp upon it. That was Helps’s artistic creed. Through the constant inner collaboration of Helps as both composer and “inventor”, and of Helps the interpreter, his oeuvre contains works which have become rare of their kind: transcriptions and homages. In his transcriptions he brought a new character to works written by other artists. His “homages” are not restricted to verbal dedications to other composers; with Helps they became short profiles, pieces in which he observes the tonal language of his colleagues, takes it over, varies it in his own way and rethinks it.

Naturally Helps’s experience as an interpreter also influenced his composing. He was completely at ease with large, but never sprawling forms; but above all he was the master of lyrical concentration. As an interpreter he knew for how long the tension of a musical arc could be sustained. The driving force of rhythm and its opposite, the almost long-forgotten virtue of repose, persisting in a harmonic atmosphere, are features of his work. Both come together in a sound-world which is not limited to traditional harmonic associations and their delicate concentration. It springs always from the specific concept of the work. In Helps’s music instrumental virtuosity manifests itself as tonal quality, not as superficial acrobatics. One should not hear from the music that it is difficult to play, or take account of how much trouble the interpreter has had with a work, but rather the persuasiveness of the artistic result. Helps mastered many ways of expressing himself as a composer but did not limit himself exclusively to any particular one. The diversity of his forms of expression finds its inner coherence in a unique personal style. Metaphorically speaking, one can recognize his handwriting, regardless of whether he writes in ink, pencil or brush. But in every genre it achieves a particular aura.

CD 1

Helps and paradox: Postludium

The recording begins with a typical Helps paradox. Postludium means Epilogue. Helps placed the eight-minute piece at the end of his three-movement Serenade but he sanctioned performances of it as a stand-alone work without the other movements—the Fantasy for violin and piano and the Nocturne for string quartet. He starts the Postlude, however, like a prelude: with horn fanfares which constantly delineate a particular tonal area, with gestures of invitation and promise. Violin and piano answer the call.

The violin continues with the final notes of the melody which are integrated into the fanfares. After playing an accompanying rôle the piano emerges ever more strongly into the foreground. The piece ends like an epilogue. It gets quieter, dies away and becomes more distant as the three parts assume the character of reminiscences. The horn part vanishes into the ether, something which not every virtuoso player of this instrument achieves, the violin plays flautando while the piano settles on those limpid textures which distinguish Helps’s style. Somewhere in the middle, after the virtuosic and dynamic climax of the violin and the piano, the horn follows with its big solo, devotes itself more to melodic playing and confronts the fanfares with its own echoes, Helps imperceptibly shifts the gears of the work’s character, completing the transformation from the inviting prelude to a contemplative postlude.

Helps was familiar with Brahms’s Horn Trio, Op. 40, and he knew that musical reminiscence in this work had an especially important significance. The Postlude is suffused with this knowledge.

Piano Quartet

Helps also plays with the relationship between prelude and postlude in his piano quartet. The musical flow, which tends towards endless melody from a series of chords (also apparently a paradox) that characterizes the first movement, appears again in the fourth movement. The Prelude ranges through several trajectories which explore an idea in free variations. They are differentiated in several layers with their own laws of motion, transform the sound and seem to falter at times. Yet the piece maintains a coherent character which is established by its harmony. One is reminded among other things of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin and of his attempt to create a modern music from new sounds. As in Scriabin’s Preludes the first movement of Helps’s Quartet is given to the piano alone. The movement was composed originally as an independent piano piece called Radiance but later Helps identified in it the potential which lay in its idiosyncratic sound world. When he received the commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation for his piano quartet he chose Radiance as the starting-point for his new work. Passages from it are echoed in the middle of the second movement in which the strings, as an independent element, are first introduced over the piano. The third movement, with its simple beginning in the strings, appears at first like a transformation of, and antithesis to, the Radiance idea. The harsh entry of the piano, however, which silences the strings, turns the Scherzo into a scene of conflict. A solution is suggested at the end when the strings and piano come together in a unified sound which contains clear references to the Prelude.

Finally the Postlude introduces an extended development of the opening movement, but now for the whole ensemble. Up to this point the course of the work seems to be like the exposition of an opening thesis (first movement), its debate through argument and contradiction (second and third movements) and its validation in a new and larger form (fourth movement), a model of dialectical thinking expressed through music. Almost as if Schumann’s words ‘fast zu ernst’ (‘almost too serious’) occurred to him, Helps adds a postscript to the postlude, a fifth movement, which he called The Players Gossip. He refers jokingly to Goethe’s characterization of the string quartet as a conversation between sensible partners who nevertheless try to outdo each other through their arguments, speaking through their virtuosity and friendship. Helps had a sense of humour, understood it and practised it as an expression of culture.


Helps wrote his Quintet for the prestigious New York new music ensemble the Da Capo Chamber Players. The instrumentation of the ensemble—flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano—has a historical model: it was the line-up of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, a work consisting predominantly of short movements. With just five musicians Helps obtains a wealth of timbres which have no equal. Each of the three movements, which proceed with no breaks, has its own character. Helps creates this character in particular in the first two movements in paradoxical ways: through variety and transformation. Different sound groups alternate, form emerges like an object turning in the light which gets refracted into different spectres and intensity. The beginning of the first two movements—high in the melody instruments in the first, deep in the piano in the second—sets out the differences of character between them. The closing movement resolves the contrasts, as it were, through distance. This, the quiet one of the three movements, begins like an imaginary choir without words, continues with a series of short duets between the piano and one of the other instruments and takes its leave with a sustained chord played by the string and wind quartet and with those glassy, bell-like piano sounds from which one instantly recognizes Helps’s music.

Bob Helps is an American maverick. While many composers of his day rushed to embrace atonality, he continued to create his coolly tonal marvels—often piano pieces of a refined, unique sensibility. He played these pieces himself, with matchless skill, being, as he was, the premier contemporary pianist of his time.

David Del Tredici, 2011

The Duos

Between the ensemble pieces on this recording are Helps’s Duos. The composer begins his three-movement Serenade with the Fantasy for violin and piano. Like the Postlude this piece can be played on its own. It is a work for true virtuosi whose instrumental brilliance signifies a heightening of expressive possibilities. Helps wrote it for his long-standing chamber music partner, the violinist Isidore Cohen. The manner in which he lets both highly demanding parts interweave, drift apart, create tension and release, freely depicts the portrait of a musician in which the partners, like artists, confide in, and at the same time challenge each other. Not only the work’s title, but also the complex structure, the concentrated energy and the great demands placed on the interpreters all make reference to Arnold Schoenberg’s Fantasy, Op. 47.

In the Duo for cello and piano Helps asserts his musical sensibility and command of compositional technique. The work remains clear, even in its most powerful, darkest and most complex passages. It is in three movements. In its diversity and its fluid changes of character the first section could be described as a fantasy in which Alban Berg’s art of transition is perfectly imagined. The middle part is played by the cello alone. This cadenza begins lyrically, gathers in rhetorical intensity, increases in virtuosity, takes a step back once more and leads into the final slow part. The cello’s cantilenas, the glassy piano sounds, the descent into the stygian depths and the rising farewell are the phases of a fading away, a leave-taking in music.

Robert Helps could take amazing musical chances when playing piano, yet he did so without ever making you not feel safe in your audience seat. I think the reason for that was his calm body language, plus a sense of physical and expressive economy that projected joy rather than reserve. His sense of rhythm was precise, yet flexible and internalized, geared toward long curvy singing lines as opposed to bar lines. Bob’s own compositions and transcriptions also seem to reflect these characteristics, in that they are cannily crafted and refined, yet never rigid for a second. And how marvelous was his sense of placing and spacing notes in time—you hear that in the best Romantic pianists, but rarely from modern players. The classical music mainstream doesn’t know Robert Helps, yet he remains sorely missed.

Jed Distler, 2010

CD 2

The second CD marks out the stylistic scope and portrays Robert Helps the interpreter. Helps, who was born in New Jersey and gave concerts and taught in various parts of the United States, wrote two piano trios. The first dates from 1957, in his early phase as a composer; the second, written forty years later, belongs to the works from his last period. The range that the composer encompassed was relatively open to experience. But above all what can also be heard is the unity of a musical thinking and style which, through varied compositional methods and different artistic experiences, remained discernible throughout. A strong personality speaks from such an identity which, through teaching from which one learns one’s trade, is not distorted, but furthered. As a young man Helps had made the right decision in his choice of teachers—Roger Sessions in the United States and Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

Helps’s comments on his second trio say much about the relationship between the two works, which symbolize the beginning and the end of his career:

Two reasons, among others, worked towards making this piece a ‘major’ effort: 1—I had not written a multiple movement work in several years and 2—I had always considered my Trio No. 1 (1957) as perhaps the best piece of my early output and I certainly didn’t want to write a new one that I would view less favorably.

In any event, I felt some pressure on me and began by writing perhaps the most important (most serious? most heartfelt?) movement—a lengthy, sustained, and somewhat otherworldly, very slow second movement. That over, the second movement got surrounded by a quite amiable textural allegro first movement and a considerably more torrid and impetuous third movement with the perhaps not-in-the-best-taste, but nonetheless descriptive title Toccata frustrata.

The title of the first movement—Duets—might suggest that the opening piece is composed not as a unified character but rather as a configuration and argument of three characters: the quiet violin melody, the more agitated voice of the cello and the rapid staccato figurations in the piano part. In the course of the movement they undergo various coalitions and partnerships. At the end the cello takes up the piano figurations. In few other movements did Helps compose so intensively in response to the experience of time as he did in the slow middle movement of the second trio. Like the later trio the first trio is conceived in three movements, but these relate differently to one another. The focal point is not an Elegy but an energetic brisk movement, a stylised dance-scene which is partly powerful and rough, partly light and agile—a typical scherzo. It is preceded by a first movement which Helps calls mesto, sad. Cantilenas, first from the violin, then from the cello determine its character. In a few places the piano joins in with them but gives the “melody” to the background, often in circular motifs. Helps opens the Finale with motto-like signals. What follows them is a gradual farewell, a fading away of the music.

Robert Helps was always an unfashionable composer, which is a big reason his music sounds increasingly fresh, poetic, and independent. Even in the self-conscious dialectically driven 50s and 60s he continued to ask the most basic questions, about expressivity, honesty, and clarity. He was also an exceptionally original pianist. His music for his instrument is not especially pianistic. It sounds, but it is also awkward to play, the notes chosen not by his fingers but by his very specific, discriminating ear. His music is alive because it is so insistently his, at his own pace, in his own world.

John Harbison, 2010

The Transcriptions

The art of improvisation and of transcription belongs to the greatest piano virtuosi. Most notably Franz Liszt, Ferruccio Busoni and Leopold Godowsky assiduously cultivated transcription. For them transcribing meant a sort of acquisition and of interpretation. Transcription allied itself with the ability to make one aware of an elementary feature of pianistic performance. In large part the impact of distinguished piano interpretation is based on suggestion or simulation. It evokes perceptions of sound which far transcend the physical reality of the sound of the piano. As both pianist and transcriber Helps was the master of this art. He transformed Mendelssohn’s Schilflied, based on one of the most popular romantic poems of the day by Nikolaus Lenau, into a song without words, completely in the spirit of its originator. Mendelssohn was convinced that in this genre music speaks more clearly than words ever could. In the Schilflied melancholy is transformed into a heartfelt declaration of love in rapt and bewitching sound-pictures. In Helps’s piano version melodic-writing and figuration coalesce as in his original compositions. Helps links John Ireland’s Love is a Sickness Full of Woes directly with Mendelssohn—like a continuation, like an answer and gradually one realises how the musical path leads on and on away from the Schilflied—into another harmony, into another sort of relationship, into another sort of virtuosity. The Ireland acts almost like a metamorphosis of Mendelssohn.

The fact that Helps performed in his programme Francis Poulenc’s Intermezzo in A flat major signifies a homage to a musician who was, like Helps himself, both composer and pianist, and who, also like Helps, mastered the art of combining melodic appeal and virtuosic brilliance, both in his compositions and in his playing. But with Leopold Godowsky Helps conducts an imaginary dialogue. Nothing was too difficult to play for the Polish-American pianist and composer. In his transcriptions of Chopin’s Studies he adds yet more astronomical difficulties to the already great technical challenges. Just as for Robert Helps, supreme virtuosity opened up for Godowsky the possibility of bringing to well-known works in the repertoire the experience of a more heightened, more intense, musicality. Godowsky’s own compositions remain in the shadow of his pianistic achievements. Helps brings to mind Godowsky the composer and the interpreter in that he performed two of the Godowsky transcriptions of Chopin.

One could see in Robert Helps a kindred spirit of John Ireland. Ireland’s beautiful music, which Helps often played, fascinated him; furthermore Helps has arranged a number of Ireland’s songs for solo piano. In his own time John Ireland was well respected yet he never attained the celebrity accorded to his contemporary colleagues Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst and Frank Bridge. This live recording of The Darkened Valley (Walking along the darkened valley / With silent melancholy) was the fourth and final encore which Robert Helps played on 6th November 2000 in the Chamber Music Room in the Berlin Philharmonie.

I met Robert Helps during Spectrum Concerts Berlin’s American Music Week, in November 2000. His music, and Helps himself, made a profound and lasting impression. His Shall We Dance was my introduction to his work; it felt entirely modern—opening up possibility and space rather than enclosing them—while expressing a timeless and finely nuanced empathy. His performances at the Berlin Kammermusiksaal were moving, technically brilliant and unforgettable. In our conversations Helps spoke with understatement—with the right few words—leaving the impression of a deep and hard-won understanding of the way things are for us here on this planet. But Helps’s eyes conveyed a sense of humour too—a sense of mischief. Is this what I remember about him, or what I still hear in the music?

Alan Magee, 2010

Robert Helps was closely connected with Spectrum Concerts Berlin in Berlin. As a pianist he performed in their concerts, an original, persuasive spirit in the way in which he interpreted works by, among others, Chopin and Schoenberg. Spectrum musicians performed his chamber music works time and again and gave them exemplary and vibrant interpretations. The piano piece Shall We Dance inspired the painter Alan Magee to produce a painting which has since become almost the emblem for Spectrum Concerts Berlin. With good reason, for Helps’s piano piece has the effect of being a concentrated expression of what were, and still remain, the aims of Spectrum Concerts Berlin: transatlantic bridge-building independent of political trends and interference.

One could describe Shall We Dance as a homage to Vienna or, more precisely, to the Second Viennese School, the group of composers around Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Helps conjures up almost a quarter of an hour of music from a short musical idea, a reminiscence of the waltz. With every trick in the book he contrives to make it speak, to glow with different colours and to make it the focal point of virtuosic intensification and accretion. Let us remember: was not the first twelve-note piece a waltz? And was not the first piano piece with which Schoenberg broke with conventional tonality also derived from a stylised waltz? And are there not in Shall We Dance echoes of Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata, Op. 1, which was also composed after the waltz-like triple-time movement?

Habakuk Traber
English translation: David Stevens

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