ROBERT HELPS: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2; Gossamer Noons; Quintet – Joanna Curtis, soprano/ Yana Yordanova, flute/ Michelle Jade Painter, violin/ Ann Satterfield, clarinet/ Grace Juliano, cello/ Teresa Ancaya, piano/ University of South Florida Symphony/ William W. Wiedrich, conductor – Albany TROY1079, 76:17 ***:
Robert Helps (1928-2001) is a composer of some note who had major premieres done by well-regarded conductors and ensembles earlier in the 20th century. He ended his career at the University of South Florida, and it is that establishment which seeks to promulgate his music on this new disc from Albany. Despite the pleadings from conductor Wiedrich in the notes, it is difficult to view this composer as a romantic; his music is terse, confined, exceptionally well-crafted, and reminiscent of the old atonal days gone by. Its aggressiveness and fortitude allow little repose, even in leisurely moments.
Helps’s teacher Roger Sessions shines through the early First Symphony. This piece, originally called “Adagio” after its slow movement, was recorded by Stokowski and the Symphony of the Air when the composer as in his twenties. The piece is tonal, but a tonality of frequently esoteric description. He did not abandon the world of the tonal even though the pressures of the time—let alone his own teacher—certainly demanded it. But he plays with it like a cat with a ball of string—sometimes it becomes unraveled and is difficult to put together again. The Second Symphony (45 years apart from the First) is more introverted, chamber like, and reflective, though that word is relative when it comes to Helps. I find it the best thing on the disc, with hints of Ives and the Transcendentalists coming through all over the place.
The other two works on this disc don’t make much impact. Gossamer Noons which features a rather overreaching soprano in Joanna Curtis—though to be fair, this is not the most ingratiating music written for voice—is based on a poem of the same name by James Purdy. It is not attractive, and comes from a mid-seventies creative bout that also produced the Quintet for flute, violin, clarinet, cello, and piano, another piece that seems locked into stasis, moving almost in unison parity with little sense of harmonic adventurousness. The way the music is written almost belies the need for a specific orchestration, so why the composer chose this rather odd one is a mystery to me. These two works remain compositions that only a mother could love, or perhaps those intricately involved with them.
The First Symphony and Gossamer Noons have both been recorded before to much better effect than here, and are available– Zoltan Rozsnyai conducts the Columbia Symphony in the symphony, while Gunther Schuller leads the American Composer’s Orchestra with Bethany Beardslee in the latter on the Composers Recordings label. The other pieces are premiere readings. This is of course a student orchestra, and as such a sports the usual weaknesses—off-balanced articulations in places, weak, tinny strings of little tonal allure, and some clammed notes. But to be fair, this music is very tough, and they do a creditable job of holding it together, and even of projecting a certain understanding of the idiom. If you want the last symphony this is the only game in town, though a greater appreciation of the First will be afforded by the CR issue. I can’t muster any enthusiasm for the other pieces, but that doesn’t mean you won’t – especially if you know other of the composer’s works. Helps, who heard this ensemble play these works nine years ago, expressed satisfaction. No doubt he would here also.
— Steven Ritter