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The Debut
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Nocturne Op. 27 No. 2 in D flat [6:15]
Etude Op. 10 No. 8, in F [2:41]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 26 in E flat, “Les Adieux” [17:57]
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonata in B minor, K. 27 [3:40]
Maurice RAVEL (1873-1937)
Gaspard de la Nuit [23:25]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Reflets dans l’eau [5:22]
Helen Nicholas (piano)
rec. 3-4 March, 2014, Trinity Laban Conservatoire Recording Studio, London, UK
Private release [59:20]

Helen Nicholas’ biography beings: “Renowned for premiering the virtuosic works of Ukrainian composer Nikolai Kapustin, Helen Nicholas…[has] an affinity for the music of Maurice Ravel and a passion for performing jazz-influenced classical music.” Which makes it strange that she performs no Kapustin and no jazz-influenced classical music on her debut recital. You’d think your premiere would include your specialty. Her repertoire, listed online, includes Gershwin, Wild, Knussen, Villa-Lobos and a chamber tango.

This is certainly a fine first album. It just could have been much more interesting. Maybe the market for new Kapustin CDs is limited to Helen Nicholas and me. Anyway, what you get on this self-released disc is a Chopin nocturne and etude, Beethoven’s “Les Adieux,” Ravel’s “Gaspard,” and pieces by Scarlatti and Debussy. The Chopin nocturne is tenderly and affectionately done (if a little slow), and the Scarlatti leans toward pianistic poetry rather than the stricter style you might achieve by imitating a harpsichord. I am a total sucker for Debussy’s “Reflets dans l’eau,” my favourite piece by the composer; rarely do I dislike a recording, and I love this one. Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” has two good, clearly voiced outer sections and a slow movement that’s a little square and inexpressive.

Alas, trouble is afoot when “Gaspard” starts. The first minute or so of Ondine has a huge, glaring problem: First one note goes missing, then a whole cascade of them go unplayed. The performance improves as it goes along, which is good. “Gaspard” is one of the hardest pieces ever written, maybe the hardest in the standard repertoire. So Nicholas gets credit for trying, and for doing much better later on, but I’m not sure how she listened to the first minute and thought, “That belongs on my debut CD.”

We have an interesting, sensitive, lyrical pianist on our hands here. Maybe this album will catch the attention of a record label that wants to record more Kapustin. Maybe Helen Nicholas’s next recording will be like Shani Diluka’s gem. The potential is there. If so, I’d be very happy, and then I’d suggest you try that first.

Since The Debut is on many download and streaming sites, like Amazon, iTunes and Spotify, you can cherry-pick which tracks you listen to and skip “Ondine.” This is a useful calling-card for the talented young Helen Nicholas, but if there’s a lesson here, it’s that your debut should only reveal your skills, not your limits.

Brian Reinhart