Robert Helps’ Repertoire

Helps’ choices were always extremely personal, often criticized for avoiding “canonical” repertoire. Importantly, he made no qualitative distinction between the importance of ”solo“ repertoire and the vast amount of difficult chamber music he performed.
In addition, the above list itself is deceptive, since Helps was one of the last of a disappearing breed of artists — one Walter Benjamin would have called ”authentic“. Meaning, many of Helps’ best performances, the ones which changed the lives of many musicians, were unique: one-time experiences. In an “age of mechanical reproduction,” many pianists have become slaves to their own recorded image, repeating incessantly and with the same interpretation a handful of works.

Helps’ fame often rested upon his rare, non-repetitive approach to music making. At heart a “live” pianist, he confessed that after recording Milton Babbitt’s difficult Partitions, he rarely felt the need to program it.
He often tackled hideously difficult works (like Schoenberg’s Septet op. 29 and innumerable pieces by his composer friends) for a single concert appearance. Conversely, he would dedicate entire periods of his life to composers whose works obsessed him: Fauré, Debussy, Chopin, Arnold Bax, John Ireland, Ravel, Schubert.

After up to a decade of concert exploration of these composers, he could also inexplicably abandon them, only retaining in his repertoire a fraction of the works he had previously played. Helps’ programs were exciting because they always reflected an inner necessity for the pianist — always something vaguely confessional which intrigued the audience.