Robert Helps was the type of composer most seriously hurt by the Big Chill against "new music" at the beginning of the 1990s; an expert interpreter of a wide range of new music as pianist, Helps was, in some camps, judged by the work he played rather than by what he created. Though he may have been associated with the academic hyper-serial school in terms of what he recorded, in his music, Helps was hardly a member of the club. A devoted student of Roger Sessions, Helps had a fascination with the long, arcing contrapuntal lines of Carl Ruggles and the world of Pierrot Lunaire, the pre-serial, atonal style of composition that serialism was largely designed to cure, not to mention the post-romantic ethos that had given birth to it. By virtue of such preoccupations, Helps was decidedly "reactionary" in direct comparison with his contemporaries, though in retrospect his embrace of established traditions may not have been such a bad long-term plan. One place where Helps' reputation is held in great respect is the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he taught for a number of years and the city where he died in 2001. In the last year of his life, Helps' two symphonies were given in concert by the South Florida Symphony Orchestra in his presence, and while it is unclear as to whether these performances are the same ones he heard, Albany's Robert Helps: Orchestral Works brings together the artists and pieces that made up this program under the baton of William Wiedrich. By way of filler, Helps' Quintet (1975) for the same combination of instruments used by Schoenberg in Pierrot Lunaire and the orchestral song Gossamer Noons (1974) featuring soprano Joanna Curtis are also included.
Helps' pair of symphonies bookend his career -- the Symphony No. 1 (1955) found a champion in Leopold Stokowski and established Helps as composer, and his Symphony No. 2 (2000) was the next to last thing he composed. Hands down, the Symphony No. 2 is the finest work on the disc -- and this is its first recording -- a strong, mature, compelling symphony that encompasses the full range of Helps' orchestral thinking and harnesses his depth of experience as a composer. The third movement, "Romance," is particularly striking as Helps ventures into passages rather reminiscent of the unfinished Mahler Symphony No. 10, though in an entirely different context; Helps may evoke older music, but his attitude isn't sentimental. This performance of the Symphony No. 1 is better than the one made in 1957 -- but not released until 1966 -- by Zoltan Rosznyai and the Columbia Symphony, a recording that very briefly appeared in the CBS Masterworks catalog before being kicked over to CRI and re-released at least twice. The moving, and essentially tonal, central Adagio -- the piece that so captivated Stokowski -- is framed by two highly intense, white-knuckle atonal movements, complete with palpitating percussion and riotously colorful orchestration. One wishes Albany's recording of Gossamer Noons was also an improvement over its predecessor, a 1978 effort by legendary soprano Bethany Beardslee -- who favored Helps as accompanist -- and the American Composers Orchestra under Gunther Schuller. But this is not the case; while soprano Joanna Curtis manages to hit all of the notes in this music, she fails to maintain an equally beauteous vocal tone, sounding a little glassy and hard. Perhaps no piece better demonstrates the difference between Helps' music and that of his era than the Quintet, played here by faculty members of the University of South Florida in Tampa. Its opening passage centers -- some would say, obsesses -- on note-against-note polyphony rich in octave doublings between instruments, music that would have made self-respecting composition professors of the 1970s begin to tear out their hair.
Helps was considered a cult composer during his lifetime, and chances are he will remain so. However, his music stands a better chance of weathering the future precisely because he did not do what was expected of him as a new music composer of his time. The advocacy of the University of South Florida, Tampa, on behalf of Helps, is completely admirable; a memorial website has been set up for him, as well as an archive, conference, and annual composer's competition in his name. The Albany recording is a little distant at times, but elements such as percussion and high-range sonics are strikingly clear and present. Helps' lifework was a long and difficult journey to which the answer only became apparent at the end; if one wishes to become acquainted with Helps' idiosyncratic music, then Albany's Robert Helps: Orchestral Works visits several of the main signposts along the way and makes for an excellent introduction.