Certain pianists are known and esteemed primarily by other pianists. They elude the limelight, they steer clear of fullpage ads and well-publicized concert tours and splashy displays at record stores. Robert Helps is such a pianist. I thought his cult following was centered in the Bay Area, but last week I was chatting on the phone with a New York composer/ pianist/writer, and he suddenly said "Robert Helps is my hero." A pianist here, a Helps disciple, says "We just haven't built our temple yet."
What is it about Robert Helps that inspires this reaction? Partly that he has forged his own path. The classical music scene is saturated with pianists who plot their course to success through conservatories, competitions, managers, publicists, gimmicky campaigns, and overplayed repertoire, emerging with a cookiecutter note-perfect product. Helps, born in New Jersey in 1928, went to Juilliard and distinguished himself early as both a composer and a fearless advocate of 20th-century music for the piano, introducing works by his teacher Roger Sessions, as well as Milton Babbitt and Aaron Copland. He has also given brilliant and original interpretations of Chopin, Ravel, and other composers. He taught at UC Berkeley and at the San Francisco Conservatory, and though he now lives in Florida, he returns to the Bay Area for regular visits and soldout recitals.
Helps is as iconoclastic in his choice of repertoire as he has been in his pursuit of a career. Most pianists feel they're required to prove themselves with late Beethoven and Schubert sonatas, big Bach works, the pillars of the classic repertoire. These days, Helps puts together strange programs that leave his audiences happy but puzzled. Sunday's program at Maybeck was typical: giant works by two virtually unknown early 20th-century British composers-Arnold Bax and John Ireland-along with a Fauré nocturne and two songs by Mendelssohn and Ireland that Helps transcribed himself.
Helps is the kind of pianist whose performance transcends the music itself. Anything he plays is worth hearing, in the same sense that Horowitz or Rachmaninovcould transform poofy little 19th-century tidbits into works of art. Ireland and Bax, like Helps himself, don't nestle comfortably into any historical category. Caught somewhere in a nebulous zone between romanticism and modernism, their music has never been either progressive enough for avant-gardists or tonal enough for conservatives. Whether their unwieldy, wooly works will eventually hit the mainstream is for the future to judge, but for now they rarely show up on concert programs. On Sunday, I wished Helps would have made a few remarks about Ireland and Bax, since few of us know much about them.
Many pianists probably avoid John Ireland's 1920 Sonata because the technical demands don't pay off in an immediately satisfying way.
When you work hard on a flashy Liszt etude or a Rachmaninov concerto, you can dazzle audiences on the spot. But the thorny morass of this Ireland sonata is so difficult to grasp on a first hearing, the listener might not notice the knots of chord progressions and convoluted voicings that cause the pianist to sweat. Finger-busting overstretched chords at breakneck speed, flurries of parallel fourths in the right hand and cascades of octaves in the left, labyrinthine counterpoint-this sonata asks a lot of the pianist, and offers back a moody conundrum.
But if you're going to hear it, you've got to hear it played by Helps. Instead of constructing some artificial groundwork for us to stand on, he sets us adrift in the undulating currents of Ireland's discourse, and we glide along with him. Helps has such a natural sense of fundamental rhythm, of breath, of pacing and phrasing, that the music seems simply to run its unpredictable and inevitable course. He starts off with a motif and you hear the piece germinate into an organic whole. The process seems effortless, set gently in motion with a gesture of relaxed grace.
Helps's approach to the piano was profoundly influenced by his teacher Abby Whiteside, who also worked outside the popular trends of piano pedagogy and charted her own philosophy. Working in the United States in the first half of this century, Whiteside developed concepts of technique like the "full-arm stroke" and "splashing." The pianist, she writes in one of her books, should use "the coordination of the cat waiting to pounce upon his prey rather than the relaxation of the cat asleep in the sun." For those of us who never had the benefit of Whiteside's teaching, her ideas of natural physical rhythm, movement, and expression can find no better testimonial than Helps: you can almost follow the fluid outpouring of music down his arms, through his wrists, out of his fingertips. His upper body seems always slightly in motion, backing up every action, like a river whose basic rhythm surges through swifter streams and tributaries. At the same time, no gesture is extraneous or gratuitous: his playing shows a tremendous economy.
This method allows Helps complete control at the piano. The result is never "fingery," unless the music requires it. It also allows him to sustain power throughout the end of the first movement of Ireland's sonata, with its pages of painfullooking octave sequences and chromatic passagework, or the leaping double octaves of the third movement. In the 1884 pre-impressionist Nocturne No. 4 in E-flat major by Fauré, chords blended together softly, and the melody emerged easily through veils of shifting harmonies. Helps can be an illusionist when he wants to, so you would never believe the piano's mechanism involved the percussive striking of hammers against strings.
Arnold Bax's First Sonata, written in 1910 and revised in 1920, is more unsettling than attractive on first hearing. Before playing it, Helps said his few comments of the day and described the ending as a "blazing pageant of bells," inspired by the Moscow bells that Bax sat under while composing this piece. The final bell section was truly fabulous, with layers piled on layers of huge bell chords traversing the keyboard. But the rest of this sprawling one-movement piece seems eccentric, the kind of music you hear and have no idea what could have been going through the composer's head. A salon-like sentimental tune here, dense brooding chromatic runs there, a funny little march followed by rhapsodic arpeggios-it stretches out in all directions and never seems to come together into a manageable piece.
Helps's transcriptions of Mendelssohn's song "Schilflied" and John Ireland's song "Love Is a Sickness Full of Woes" introduced us to two lovely gems. Like the song arrangements of Liszt and Rachmaninov, Helps's versions keep the vocal line at the forefront while surrounding it with pianistic filigree, so that the challenge is to be singer and accompanist both at once. Helps kept the smooth flow and phrasing of the songs, even when he played the vocal line entirely with the thumb of his right hand in the Ireland. The Mendelssohn song grows in complexity, until the song leaps up and down the keyboard in octaves and thirds. Again, Helps kept the vocal line relaxed and brought out the spatial dimensions of melody, inner voices, and accompanying passagework.
Perhaps what we recognize and cling to in Robert Helps is his apparent link to a lost era of great pianists like Rachmaninov and Josef Hoffmann and Myra Hess, whose warmth and suppleness Helps seems to recreate. We yearn for freshness in piano playing, yet vilify pianists whose novelty lacks substance. Emotional expression, which most pianists avoid, comes naturally for Helps. He explores a phrase with remarkable leisure, liberating time into an elastic yet inexorable medium. It may also be that because he is a composer (and one whose style has ranged from romantic sweetness to atonal severity), he understands that Ireland and Bax shouldn't have to conform to our expectations. In the long run, we might not be convinced these are first-rate composers, and we might not go out of our way to hear them again. Unless Robert Helps is playing them, and then we will.