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Gustav Helsted (1857-1924): Decet, Op. 18 & String Quartet, Op. 33 / David Riddell, The Danish Sinfonietta

Notes & Reviews:

Danish organist and composer Gustav Helsted did not begin his musical career until he was 22 years old, at which time he enrolled in the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. Helsted's contemporaries viewed his writing style as modern and radical. A critic in his native Denmark wrote that he was "... a questing artist who chooses his resources with extremely discerning taste, and who may therefore seem odd and unapproachable." This release includes the world premiere recording of Helsted's Decet in D major. Op. 18 (1891) alongside his String Quartet in F minor, Op. 33.


Post-romantic goodness

Just how progressive was Danish composer Gustav Helsted? Well, he founded a musical society that was playing Bruckner and Mahler symphonies in 1896. And while he studied with Niels Gade, Helsted was vitally interested pushing beyond Gade's concept of romanticism -- as his heroes Bruckner and Mahler had.

Helstedís Decet, Op. 18 for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn and strings is a good example of that boundary-pushing. Composed in 1891, it was still considered far too modern-sounding twenty-five years later (according to critics).

While the harmonic progressions might not seem quite outre a century later, the Decet is still an unusual work. Its instrumentation allows for some unconventional timbres. At times it sounds like a chamber orchestra, and other times an intimate trio or quartet.

To my ears, Helsted sounds superficially similar to Grieg in this work, but that might just be the Scandinavian character coming through. The odd instrumentation will naturally limit performances, but the quality of the writing makes this a work that should be heard often.

Helsted's String Quartet is, I think, a truly remarkable work. Possibly written as early as 1917, it strongly reminded me of Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 -- composed in 1960. Although it lacks the urgency and angst of Shostakovich's work, Helsted's quartet does outline its motifs in sharp relief, with stark, dramatic contrasts driving the music.

If these two works are any indication of the quality of his output, then Gustav Helsted is a composer I would like to know better. Members of the Danish Sinfonietta, under the direction of David Riddell, turn in unapologetic performances of these obscure masterworks that bring the music to life. If you're interested in Bruckner, Mahler, or Shostakovich, then Helsted's works are worthy of your attention.
Submitted on 09/29/16 by RGraves321 
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