Helps/Adams/Brief/Sessions: Piano Works

A sonata by Roger Sessions, pieces by Todd Brief, Robert Helps, and John Adams: a thread connects this recital of American piano music written over the past half century or so. Each piece exemplifies a distinctly American treatment of a traditional form or style of composing for the piano. The Sessions sonata is a one-movement work whose infrastructure reveals a three-movement sonata format (including a sonata allegro movement) that Haydn himself might recognize, Robert Helps uses the theme-and-variations form to pay homage to Fauré's lustrous chromaticism. John Adams's two minimalist studies recall the toccata, one of the oldest styles for exploiting the keyboard's capacity for demonstrating varieties of touch, texture, and speed. In Nightsong, which Todd Brief began by improvising at the piano, the composer reminds us of the historic link between composers like J.S. Bach and Chopin, virtuosos who liked to improvise at the keyboard, and jazz composers, whose performances consist almost entirely of virtuoso improvisation.

ROBERT HELPS: Hommage à Fauré (1972)

The theme-and-variations is one of the oldest forms of musical development. In every era it has been embellished, probably because of the innate reluctance of the human ear to want to hear the same thing played twice in the same way. Today's composers receive the form along with an accretion of procedures for working it out that are virtually as old as the history of music. In Hommage à Fauré, Robert Helps demonstrates his personal variant of the form with a twist on the strophic variation technique of Baroque opera (a world to which Fauré and other French composers paid close attention), which he combines with an evocation of Fauré's own iridescent palette. Helps restates his tune nearly note for note in every variation, altering only its harmony and accompaniment figures—and ultimately, its mood. The melody's unchanging insistence as it unfolds within a galanterie of constantly moving settings lends a haunting nostalgia to the piece.

JOHN ADAMS: China Gates (1977); Phrygian Gates (1978)

Minimalism, which dates from the 1960s, departs from the main tradition in Western music; it is music in which the composer seeks to provoke the utmost effect with the least amount of material. By slowing down and isolating such musical features as rhythm, harmony, melody, and development, the minimalist composer brings the passage of time to such prominence as to make time itself seem the subject of the piece. All music compresses and rearticulates time to produce a temporal transformation that could be called theatrical, as opposed to clock, or real, time. Minimalism also compresses time, but in a way largely unfamiliar to Western ears, which are apt to perceive minimalism's rate of change as derived from the automatism of inanimate nature—the speed, say of clouds moving or glaciers melting—rather than from the familiar pace of the human heartbeat. Continuing repetition, which is traditionally anathema to Western music but a salient feature of both Indian ragas and electronic music, is another means by which minimalists slow down the passage of time. Ironically, however, one of the main characteristics of minimalism—its unflagging, ritualistic propulsion—is the result of a lack or perceptible recurrence of aural reference points. Particles of musical material are introduced so slowly, in an evolving, rather than a conventionally developing manner, that the listener's sense of periodicity is obliterated.

Besides the temporal novelty of China Gates and Phrygian Gates, these pieces are also studies exploiting varieties of speed, touch, color, texture, register, and dynamics. They are evocations of the toccata, one of the oldest compositional styles for demonstrating keyboard virtuosity. The term “gate” is one that Adams has borrowed from the vocabulary of electronics; it denotes the onset of a signal that makes an electronic circuit operative or inoperative, Adams has used the word to name a formal device. In Phrygian Gates, for example, a “gate” is a point of modulation from the Phrygian to the Lydian mode.

TODD BRIEF: Nightsong (1985)

Todd Brief's Nightsong is not overtly impressionistic, yet it is as mysteriously and hieratically gestural and evocative as Schumann's The Prophet Bird or Debussy's Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir. Brief uses complex rhythmic combinations to produce whorls and flashes of sound that register on the ear as aural counterparts of physical impulses. Part of the eerily romantic air of Nightsong is the result of the composer's insistence on the piano's dry-sparkly upper register, which he employs at such length that the listener is apt to feel released from the pull of gravity and relocated to some darkly celestial spot. Nightsong began as an improvisation. The composer worked directly at the piano and edited the results into a composed piece.

ROGER SESSIONS: Sonata No. 1 (1931)

The Sessions sonata is a work in one movement containing the skeleton of a more or less traditional three-movement sonata, including a first-movement sonata allegro complete with a pair of contrasting themes, a development section, and a recapitulation. The piece opens with a poignant tune that hovers over a wide ostinato accompaniment. This tune will reappear almost literally several more times, its shape remaining more or less constant, its function and character changing as the sonata progresses. We first hear this tune as if it's a reference to the opening adagio of the French overture style; it returns to form the main material of the second movement Andante, and is transformed again to serve as a bridge from the Andante proper to the final Molto Vivace. These subsequent reappearances eventually lend to the tune the effect of a flash-forward technique in a movie.

Sessions opens his Allegro with an annunciatory statement in descending octaves. This motive, in stark contrast to the sonata's Chopinesque introduction, is bone dry, syncopated—American sounding. The second theme is light, frantic, restless. Sessions develops these two themes by restating the first in a less dense, somewhat understated manner, then metamorphoses his second theme into a chorale restatement of itself. The two themes are heard together in the recapitulation, the ostinato of the second theme sounding over the descending octaves of the first theme. This section ends with a passage of static clanging parallel thirds, out of which a halo of sound emerges that evanesces into a return of the opening tune and ostinato—and the second movement Andante has arrived.

The Andante becomes a lyric-dramatic duet with a dutifully measured simple accompaniment. Eventually the original tune returns, in a filigree of luminous passagework that melts into the third movement Molto Vivace. The finale is crisply scintillating. By pointedly avoiding the piano's more soothing, cello-like register, Sessions exploits the instrument's jangling high register to produce a near-hysterical ecstasy.


Christopher O'Riley combines a piano technique of remorseless brilliance with a fastidious musical intelligence. In a professional career that is not yet ten years old, O'Riley has asserted himself as one of the most formidable and best-loved pianists of his generation. He appears throughout the United States and Europe as a recitalist, soloist with orchestra, and chamber musician. His repertory encompasses the literature of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, including music written as recently as last year.

Like most outstanding pianists, O'Riley was attracted to the piano at an early age. He began playing by ear at the age of four, but did not study music formally until he was seven. O'Riley's natural facility made him a virtuoso by the time he was twelve, when he began to study with Lilli Simon, a pupil of Bartók. Simon impressed on the young O'Riley the deep seriousness of music, emphasizing that technical proficiency was merely the means to a greater end. After high school O'Riley continued his studies at the New England Conservatory of Music under the direction of Beatrice Erdely and the esteemed pianist/teacher Russell Sherman, both of whom were pupils of Eduard Steuermann, who was himself a pupil of Busoni. It is Erdely whom O'Riley credits with helping him gain final mastery of the keyboard and who taught him the vital mechanics of the varieties of tonal production. Sherman was O'Riley's master teacher, who taught him to think and work at the highest level of art. “I already knew how to do everything when I went to Mr. Sherman,” O'Riley has said. “My work with him was a matter of defining the dialectic of interpretation; he taught me to be my own teacher and critic.”

O'Riley, who was born in Chicago and reared in Pittsburgh, launched his career by winning prizes in the major international piano competitions—in Montreal and Leeds; the Busoni in Italy, and the Van Cliburn in Fort Worth. His progress was further aided by important grants from Xerox Affiliate Artists, Avery Fisher, and Pro Musicis Foundation, as well as by the nurturing and guidance of Young Concert Artists. These are the bare fact; the rest of the story of O'Riley's career is the result of his communication with the audience.

A pianist in the grand manner, he especially favors the colorful, large-scale works of the uniquely pianistic master composers like Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, Scriabin, and Schumann. His repertory also includes many occasional, miniature, and recondite pieces by both well-known and unfamiliar composers. O'Riley's playing is, of course, the product of his distinct personality. But there can be little doubt that his profile as an artist is also the result of the dramatic tension between the stern conservatism of his musical training and the sensuous flamboyance of his own innate temperament. He is at once architect, dramatist, colorist, and dancing master; he is the intellectual's hedonist.

-- David Daniel

Recorded on September 11 and 12, 1989 at The Barn; Bedford, New York.

Steinway Model D Producer: Judith Sherman

Photography: Jeffrey Rothstein Photo Finishing: Scott Norkin Design: Marlene Fusaris

Nightsong is published by Universal Editions, Vienna (Helicon/BMI); sole US agents:European American Music Distribution Corporation. China Gates & Phrygian Gates are published by Associated Music Publishers. The Sessions Sonata is published by Schott Music Publishers and Hommage à Fauré is published by C.F. Peters.