Gustav Helsted – Decet, 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.

Helsted’s 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.

Gustav Helsted: Decet and String Quartet
The Danish Sinfonietta, David Riddell, conductor
Dacapo 8.226111

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