GUSTAV HELSTED: Decet & Strygekvartet
31 October 2016
Classical Lost and Found
Born eight years before Carl Nielsen (1865–1931; see 26 March 2010), Danish composer Gustav Helsted’s (1857–1924) music somewhat anticipates that of his illustrious compatriot, and is well worth getting to know! He first studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music (RDAM), Copenhagen, where one of his teachers was Niels Gade (1817–1890; see 18 April 2011). He’d then received further training in Germany, France and Italy.
Beginning in 1891 he established a reputation as one of Denmark’s finest organists, and went on to become an instructor at the RDAM. From age eighteen (1875) almost up until his death he wrote a modest body of works having a directness and no-nonsense quality, which we’re told reflected his personality. They include some in the chamber category, two of which appear on this recent Dacapo release. Both are world premiere recordings.
The program begins with Decet of 1891 scored for wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn), string quartet (2 violins, viola, cello) and double bass. Conceived along symphonic lines, it’s in four movements, and opens with an allegro [T-1]. This is a delicate pastoral tone painting that invokes images of a summer morning in the country. It opens with warm string sunshine, and woodwind bird calls welcoming the coming day. Then there’s an inventive developmental dialogue of late romantic mien that ends the movement tranquilly.
The andante is a theme and variations [T-2], which starts with a sullen main subject (SM) presented in tandem by oboe [00:08] and clarinet [00:23]. Seven transformations follow, the first being a repeat of SM for the winds to a bouncing triplet string figure. Then there’s a somewhat eerie version [02:03] succeeded by three that could easily represent children at play. These are respectively skipping [03:02], boisterous [03:34], and a game of tag [04:05].
After that the mood darkens, and we get a lament for strings [04:35]. This turns insistent [06:42], and gives way to a final wistful variation [07:28]. It ends the movement with a small ray of hope, setting the tone for the cheerful scherzo. Here jolly, contrapuntally-spiced outer sections hug an amorous, melodically attractive one [01:53-03:22].
However, gloom returns for the SM-dominated, first part of the finale [T-4]. Then increasingly busy passages with some curious, churning string riffs [01:33 & 01:40] resembling the opening of Mussorgsky’s (1839–1881) Night on Bare Mountain (1866) [01:33 & 01:40] introduce a refreshing Nordic theme (RN) [01:54]. It’s the subject of a consummate development ending in a fugato [04:20] that introduces a radiant recap of RN [06:56]. After that the music turns briefly nostalgic [09:01], only to bloom into a big tune reminder of RN and final coda [09:56], ending the work happily.
The last of Gustav’s four surviving string quartets fills out the disc. Probably dating from 1917, this is highly chromatic music that may well reflect the influence of César Franck (1822–1890), whose organ music Helsted championed in Denmark.
The first of its four movements is an allegro [T-5] that opens with a snarling feral motif (SF) [00:00], which will dominate it. SF is explored, and sires an extended romanticized version of itself (ER) [01:15]. Both ideas next undergo a two-stage development [02:25 & 03:48] that ends abruptly. Then some pianissimo pizzicato [05:32] prefaces a sad reminder of ER [05:38]. This is succeeded by an upward, SF-related forte flourish [06:00], bringing things to an emphatic close.
The hectic pace set above prevails in the next presto [T-6], which is a scherzo in all but name. Here a highly agitated idea (HA) [00:00] of SF temperament alternates with a laid-back pleading one [01:27]. HA has the last say, and the movement concludes much like it began.
Then we get a change of mood with an andante [T-7] that’s in essence a lament. At one point the music becomes somewhat hopeful [03:47], but then turns grief-stricken, ending this section despairingly.
The terminal, sonata-form-like allegro [T-8] is the work’s high point, and for that matter many may find it the zenith of this release. The jittery thematically fragmented opening (JF) [00:00] and amorous songlike theme (AS) that follows [00:58] find the composer at the height of his creative powers. Then they battle it out in a development [02:34], which is both harmonically headstrong and virtuosically demanding. This eventually abates into a reappearance of JF [04:33] and AS [05:09] succeeded by a frenetic coda [06:11], which finishes the quartet in an elated major key.
Our performers for these works are drawn from the Danish Sinfonietta (aka Randers Chamber Orchestra), whose artistic director and chief conductor is Scottish-born David Riddell. Under him they make a strong case for the Decet, while four of their string players leave the ensemble to give a stunning performance of the technically demanding Quartet.
Made three years ago at the Vækert Arts Center, Randers, Denmark, the recordings are excellent, and project appropriately sized sonic images in a warm, nurturing venue. The Decet musicians are positioned in conventional symphony orchestra fashion, thereby giving a somewhat wider soundstage than that for the Quartet. All of the instruments are well captured and balanced in both works, making this a demonstration grade disc.