Robert Helps, Reviews

Pianist Helps helps put
Sessions session right

By David McKee,* Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 14, 1996

Roger Sessions (1896-1985) is a knotty and complex composer to come to terms with. "Maximalist to the max" is how Michael Steinberg, in "The Symphony," described the flinty modernist. "Possessed of electrifying energy, physical and intellectual," according to Steinberg, Sessions' music "throws events at you at a tremendous rate [yet] is also profoundly traditional in the tensions and releases of its arching melodies .... played badly, it sounds like hell." Suffice it to say that the all-Sessions centenary chamber program, presented Tuesday night at he University of St. Thomas' Brady Auditorium was anything but badly played. Star of the evening was pianist/composer Robert Helps, a snowy-haired and dauntingly vigorous virtuosic champion of the new and neglected, who received an honorary doctorate at concert's end. Helps led off with Sessions' Piano Sonata No. 2, in which a long, well-sustained melody courses through traffic jams of discords, often breaking into jazzy exuberance. The slow movement opposed two patterns of chords, one ascending, its pathos tugged at by the opposing descending line.

The conflict resolved into a soft, Impressionist drizzle of gentle dissonances. The finale was propelled by heavy, driving tonal collisions, with the melody leapfrogging from brilliant treble keys to blackest bass. By startling contrast, the Duo for Violin and Piano, composed a there four years earlier (1942), could be the work of a different composer - even Brahms, who lead taken to dabbling with the 12-tone scale and chromaticism (in which the music lacks a stable "home" key). Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis joined Helps for this autumnal, consonant piece, its initial melody unfolding over simple arpeggios and chord progressions on the piano, all of which grows more driven and agitated.

Fleezanis tore assuredly into the harmonics (stratospheric tones produced by fingering as close to the bow as practical) and fast passagework of the second movement's wild, rhapsodic gallop. The finale offers the violinist a chance to strut some old fashioned flair, though both here and in the Violin Sonata (1953) the interest of the music sometimes devolves into the merely technical.

Nevertheless, Fleezanis' instrument sang and mourned in the latter, which slid offer music both gentle and intense, although the slow movement seemed merely academic until a burst of emotion at its peak.

Throughout, Fleezanis was called upon to deliver rapid tremolandi, wide melodic skips and trills, quick alternations of staccato and arco (bowed) lines, even a few swoops that accorded with Fleezanis' involved, Romantic, pedal-to-the-metal style.

Helps' rendering of the Third Piano Sonata (composed in memory of JFK) caught the incomprehension and frenzied grief of the piece. Its first movement proceeds in tiny, stepwise, close-harmony patterns that tumble over one another eventually, for whenever the music seems ready to settle into a groove, it suddenly veers off elsewhere. A final note sounds a world of grief. Its middle frame is a headlong plunge through bramble bushes of widely spaced intervals and barrages of discords, interspersed with moments of repose. Sessions closes with a harsh, pounding funeral procession, trailing away into heartfelt grief.

* David McKee is classical music critic of the Twin Cities Render.