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Helps: Orchestral Works / Wiedrich, Curtis, Yordanova, Painter, Et Al

Release Date: 01/13/2009 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1079   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Robert Helps
Performer:  Joanna CurtisMichelle PainterGrace JulianoAnn Satterfield,   ... 
Conductor:  William Wiedrich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  University of South Florida Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 16 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

HELPS Symphonies: No. 1; No. 2. Gossamer Noons. 1 Quintet 2 William Wiedrich, cond; Univ of South Florida SO; Joanna Curtis (sop); 1 Yana Yordanova (fl); 2 Michelle Jade Palmer (vn); 2 Ann Sutterfield (cl); 2 Grace Juliano (vc); Read more class="SUPER12">2 Teresa Ancaya (pn) 2 ALBANY TROY 1079 (76:17) &

I applaud anything that advances the music of Robert Helps (1928–2001). Helps was a composer of great craft, imagination, and an uncompromising vision. His music, while highly chromatic and not at all displaying fear of dissonance, is still rooted in the rhetoric of the Romantic tradition. On the one hand you have transcendental effort that pushes envelopes; on the other, a discipline that integrates disparate elements into a cohesive whole. It’s a little bit Ives meets Schoenberg—not surprising, since that description could also apply to Roger Sessions, who was Helps’s teacher. The major difference between Helps and his mentor is that his music tends to be much less dense than Sessions’s, and the ideas communicate (for me at least) more immediately and clearly.

This disc is most notable for pairing Helps’s two symphonies (1955 and 2000). The Second is a premiere recording. The First is an impressive work for a composer under 30, not just for its technique, but also for the maturity and wisdom it projects. The Second is actually not that far removed from its predecessor in its language, though it strikes me as even more focused in its expression; it’s most distinguished by a gorgeous slow movement that the composer says is an overt Mahler homage, and it sounds it, happily without being the least bit plagiaristic. Gossamer Noons (1974) is a song cycle for soprano and orchestra on poems of James Purdy, and stresses a visionary tone. The 1975 Quintet begins as an intense and explosive work that moves into statelier realms by its end.

Which leads to the fly in the ointment. I don’t feel these renditions really serve the music as well as it needs. This pains me, because I feel the USF Orchestra plays its heart out, Curtis handles her part well, and Wiedrich has a strong interpretive grasp on the music. (One of the best-kept secrets in this nation for you concertgoers is that, if you want to hear fabulous performances in imaginative programming that makes your local symphony orchestra pale, get thee to a university music school or college conservatory.) It appears that all the performances (except perhaps the Quintet) came from a concert in honor of the composer near the end of his life. As such they’re precious documents, and a worthy monument.

But they also aren’t the final word. Helps’s music is extremely demanding, for two reasons. First, the chromatic language needs to be treated just like common-practice harmony. That means the dissonance needs to be blended into the whole so it doesn’t stand out, but instead just adds an expressive edge to the music. And that means the orchestra must maintain exceptional timbral/textural balance and ensemble. The other demand emerges from Helps’s background as one of the great new music pianists of his generation. Much of his orchestral writing applies a chamber-music approach to the medium, with virtuosic solo parts, or sections playing forward like soloists.

And in both cases the orchestra is good but not great, and I fear great is what’s needed. These younger players don’t seem as experienced as needed to make the music soar and sing. To make sure I wasn’t being too harsh, I went back to a CRI recording of Helps’s music (717) that includes both the First Symphony and Gossamer Noons (performed by the Columbia Symphony and the American Composers Orchestra, respectively). These performances are in a different league from those under review—crisp, incisive, balanced, propulsive. And even though these are CD transfers of old analog recordings, the recorded sound, balance, and transparency are better.

Such criticism gives me no pleasure, because I admire the impulse and effort involved. Because I think Helps is an important and undervalued composer, I can recommend the disc based on the presence of the two recorded premieres, especially the Second Symphony. But while the CRI disc is now out of print, I notice one can still buy it on amazon.com, and I’d recommend it as an introduction to the composer’s work.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 1 by Robert Helps
Conductor:  William Wiedrich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  University of South Florida Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1955; USA 
Symphony no 2 by Robert Helps
Conductor:  William Wiedrich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  University of South Florida Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Gossamer Noons by Robert Helps
Performer:  Joanna Curtis (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1977; USA 
Quintet for Flute, Violin, Clarinet, Cello and Piano by Robert Helps
Performer:  Michelle Painter (Violin), Grace Juliano (Cello), Ann Satterfield (Clarinet),
Teresa Ancaya (Piano), Yana Yordanova (Flute)
Period: 20th Century 

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