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CD Review

Benjamin Lees

Complete Works for Violin

  • Sonata #1
  • Sonata #2
  • Sonata #3
  • Invenzione for Solo Violin
Ellen Orner, violin
Joel Wizansky, piano
Albany TROY138 71:04
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Not for the complacent or faint of heart.

Contrary, I suspect, to popular belief, we do not suffer from a dearth of wonderful contemporary composers, but a surfeit. Without breaking a sweat, I could name three really good ones within an hour's drive from me. I could name at least five I've encountered on Internet music-discussion lists. It's as if we can hold in our heads at most six at a time and so neglect fine, strongly communicative work. That we have so many composers in the face of such dismal economic conditions (making a living solely from writing classical music is less likely than winning the Publisher's Clearinghouse sweepstakes) never fails to amaze me.

Everything I've heard by American Benjamin Lees has impressed me mightily. I regard him as one of our very best – up there with Copland, Harris, Thomson, Piston, Barber, Carter, Gershwin, Bernstein, Schuman, and Diamond, our current list of enduring American classics. Yet one encounters his music only rarely, usually on labels like CRI, Louisville, New World, and now Albany. I remember two major-label LP releases – on CBS, with Graffman marching through one of the piano sonatas and on RCA, with Buketoff conducting a terrific concerto for string quartet and orchestra, even better than Martinů's.

Since so few have likely encountered the name, I'll furnish a few details about his career. Lees, born in 1924 (which makes him roughly contemporary with Bernstein), studied in California with, among others, George Antheil. Antheil had been a member of our avant-garde during the Twenties with such works as the Jazz Symphony and Ballet mécanique, but soon abandoned a remarkable vein of composition for Stravinskian neo-classicism. I find Antheil in his Stravinsky suit less remarkable, but I must admit he knew his stuff. Lees shares with Antheil a formidable grasp of craft. Unlike many American composers of his generation, Lees made little or no use of the American vernacular, although you can identify an energy in his rhythms which many associate with American music. Still, like Sessions, Piston, and Mennin, one notes a desire to produce "classic" work, which means a strong alignment with a European view of things. Normally, I wave the flag more than most and distrust such a view, not because I fear Wholesale Old-World Corruption, but because American composers cutting themselves off from the multifarious vitality of American vernacular music usually results in anemic work. You'd better have something mighty good of your own. Fortunately, Lees – like Piston and Sessions – does. By conventional measures, he's had a good career, with performances from major conductors, orchestras, and players – including Szell, Ormandy, Leinsdorf, Steinberg, Schippers, Maazel, and Mehta. Lees spent the better part of the Fifties in Europe but remained untouched by the hot tickets of Boulez (a year younger), Messiaen, Nono, Leibowitz, Stockhausen, Henze, Lutosławski, and Ligeti. In my experience, audiences strongly like his work. Yet, no star performer or recording company can be accused of championing him, in the way British Decca did for Britten, CBS did for Copland, and Nonesuch seems to do for Adams.

Three traits in Lees's music impress me most: a tremendous momentum, born of crackling rhythm and logic, surprise at what happens (although the surprise always results from the implications of his basic material), and the handsomeness of his musical forms. Lees isn't afraid of dissonance, but it's dissonance within a strongly tonal context, like Bartók and Prokofieff. The sense of key sticks to the listener particularly strongly. Ellen Orner's liner notes to the CD talk of the influence on Lees of Surrealism, and it may very well be true. To me, such elements, if they exist, don't matter as much as those other three things. Indeed, I find the coherence of Lees's musical thought (rather than the psychological synthesis arising from wildly opposite thoughts – the main Surrealist strategy) unmistakably strong. Yet it's not "cerebral," in the pejorative sense many listeners use the term, any more than Brahms. The music tells emotionally, but, like Brahms, Lees is serious and tough-minded about his work.

This CD gathers Lees's chamber music for violin, and I prefer to discuss it in order of composition, even though the works appear on the CD most recent first. The Violin Sonata #1's opening may remind some of Prokofieff or even Khachaturian in its rhythmic drive. The elegance of the writing and the ease with which Lees switches from his lyrical subjects to his rhythmic ones definitely move this closer to Prokofieff than Khachaturian. Yet it's no knock-off. For one thing, the rhythms create more cross-accent than one usually finds in the Russians – jazz echoing through the subconscious? – but it's not superficially jazzy. The work comes from 1953 and thus allies Lees with pre-war rather than postwar composers – a classic Modernist viewpoint. More Prokofieff reminiscences come in the slow movement, particularly in the dialogue between the bass register of the piano and the high harmonics of the violin, often with nothing between. The movement above all impresses with its unapologetic singing beauty, although it does sing a Prokofieff song. Well, everybody starts somewhere, and you could do a lot worse than here. The last movement, Allegro con spirito, shows us the future composer peeking out, with mercurial changes of mood and a set of emotional chameleon-like changes on a small set of themes. The music bifurcates. On the one hand, one gets the springing rhythmic gestures of the "joyful" finale, yet most of the movement sounds as serious as a holdup.

The Invenzione for solo violin comes from the early Sixties, when doctrinaire serialists had triumphed in the universities, and concert programs had begun to ignore (even more than previously) a large body of great work. Lees has the previous models of Bach, Paganini, Ysaÿe, Bartók, and perhaps even Bloch – all conceived for virtuosi – and consequently the work bristles with technical thorns (Lees wrote it for Ricci). However, unlike Paganini, for example, the work also demands the intellectual attention of performer and listener. It rhapsodically varies a small set of basic motives and welds each variation into a "symphonic" structure, much as Brahms does in his Haydn-Variationen. Pay great attention to the declamatory introduction, since probably all the material comes from there (I've no score and haven't checked). Furthermore, the variations aren't always clearly demarcated, but tend to flow into each other, so that we get more the macroscopic view than the microscopic one. The work has great sweep from start to finish: declamatory intro, allegro, lyrical "breather," scherzo passage, recap of most of the material from the intro on, a hell-for-leather drive to the finish, interrupted by another breather and recap of the opening declamation. Obviously, a lot of structural associations can be made – to sonata-allegro, symphony, sonata-rondo, and so on – all from the basic variation format. Its emphasis on tonal centers must have struck critical minds at the time as hopelessly out of date, but the music is too vital and too communicative to dismiss or forget, even with all the intellect that went into its construction. By this time, Prokofieff is nowhere in sight; Lees has become his own man. I can't really call his style immediately identifiable, in the sense that Stravinsky's is, even though I get no "echoes," but his virtues go from work to work.

The second sonata (1973) begins, unusually enough, with a solo cadenza on the movement's themes. The piano crashes in, and the movement takes off. In her liner notes, Orner points out that although the music changes meter practically bar-by-bar, the effect is one of energy, rather than instability. To the listener, the technique of the meter change isn't the point, and it's as if Lees has an inner gyroscope that allows him to lean way out over the rhythmic edge without tipping over. Lees worries his themes into new shapes, and the movement proceeds with a relentless drive, even at the "lyrical" second subject group. I note only two points of comparative relaxation – the movement is a grim one – a little less than four minutes from the end, and a bit over two minutes before the end, when the music seems to peter out, despite some attempts to rouse itself, into final stasis. That's where the second movement – the official slow movement – begins. Unlike its corresponding in the first sonata, this is no song. In conventional terms, the music goes nowhere, as the piano obsesses over single notes and half-tone intervals. Yet it gives off incredible tension. There's a phantasmagoric, brooding quality and an austerity that calls to mind the bleak emotional terrain of late Shostakovich. The second movement seems to lead directly into the third, where all that pent-up energy finally explodes in a biting, angry, and quick rondo, full of violin "special effects." The effects always make an emotional point, reinforcing the menace, and the two instruments generate great power. This music grabs and shakes you. I think it one of the century's best.

With the Sonata #3 of 1989, the desire to relate movements ever more tightly, which we noted in the second, results in a one-movement work. To some extent, this is a giant rhapsody, rather than sonata movements stuffed into one. Yet, unlike most rhapsodies, the music holds tightly together. It seems to generate itself, like cellular division. Pay very close attention to the opening. Here, Lees starts varying his basic ideas from the get-go. It's a movement of continuous variation, such as we encounter in something like the Pettersson second violin concerto, but without the motific abundance of Pettersson. Orner notes three basic ideas in the sonata, and each is distinct and memorable. If you don't know what they are at the beginning, Lees has drilled them and their variants into you so thoroughly, you'll know them by the end. Lees wrings an unbelievable amount of mileage from these – well, "cells" really. Furthermore, we rediscover Lees's dramatic ability within abstract forms, the capacity to build a compelling rhetorical propulsion in his music, all without conventional melody or any of the cliché riffs of Modernism. I suspect that one reason why Lees is so hard to pin down stylistically is that not only doesn't he steal from others, he also doesn't steal from himself.

Orner and Wizansky give passionate, committed performances, in the beautifully balanced, fully equal partnership implied by the music itself. It couldn't have been easy, but they give back the music as if they had first absorbed it into their bones. There are finer technicians around than either one, but no better musicians. First-class. Sound is acceptable.

Copyright © 1999, Steve Schwartz