It's a mystery that the music of Benjamin Lees (b. 1924) isn't better known. I've followed his career since the 1960s when I attended the premiere of his Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra. And a couple of years ago I wrote a rave review of the issue on Naxos of his Fourth Symphony. Thus, it was with great pleasure that I saw that a disc containing three more symphonies - Nos. 2, 3 & 5 - was being issued on Albany. I've now been living with it for several months and am prepared to say that all three of these symphonies are major works, worthy of frequent hearings.
From the ominous cat-like tread of the pizzicato basses in Symphony No. 2 to the glorious racket made by brass, harp, xylophone and chimes at the end of Symphony No. 5, there is never an uninteresting moment. And for lagniappe, on the second disc of this 2CD set, there is an engaging set of 'Etudes for Piano and Orchestra' played brilliantly by pianist James Dick, with the current American conductorial poster boy, Robert Spano, leading the orchestra of the Texas Festival. It's a not-quite-concerto in six sections, recorded live and thus with a few minor bobbles which are not in any way disconcerting.
Lees' musical style has been described by Nicolas Slonimsky as 'ingratiating ... modern, but not arrogantly so.' His form is always classically clear, his rhythms typically somewhat asymmetric, his tonal harmonies spiced with occasional dissonances. I always come away from his music feeling that I've been in the presence of a lucid thinker, a skilled communicator and an ingenious craftsman. One has the sense that his music conveys precisely what he intends because of his masterful control of his materials. The music sometimes has an emotional ambiguity that adds interest, I think.
Symphony No. 2 (1958) is in three movements. The first opens with a slow introduction, a sort of passacaglia introduced by those pacing pizzicato basses, leads to a quicker and more rhythmically complex section before returning to the earlier mood. The Scherzo opens with a whirlwind in the winds that quickly leads to portentous brass and timpani and then urgent horns, bassoons, celli. These three elements, plus a fourth later introduced by the flute, comprise the material for the entire movement, a dizzying tour de force that culminates a huge climax before the resumption of further conversations between the earlier themes. The Finale, an Adagio that also has a couple of faster sections, is based on simple intervals, primarily downward and upward minor seconds, heard earlier in the symphony. After a rigorous and exciting development, the symphony ends on a quiet, almost resigned, note.
The Third Symphony (1969) is unusual in that each of the three main movements is introduced by an 'Intermezzo' given to a tenor saxophone - here played brilliantly, even soulfully, by David Jäger - and percussion, primarily temple blocks. At first blush the piece feels less formally clear than any other Lees pieces that I know, but repeated listening leads one to understand that thematic and rhythmic, as well as contrapuntal, similarities abound in the seemingly unconnected movements (six in total if you count, as Lees does, the 'Intermezzi' as separate movements). Still, there is an impressionistic quality that obscures the formal clarity of the piece, and I think that works to its advantage: one can simply sit back and let the pieces of the mosaic appear and disappear without being concerned about their relationship to each other. It's only after you've listened a few times that you can make out the whole picture. The more I listen to this symphony the more I believe it is a true masterpiece of design AND of effect. Bravo, Mr. Lees!
Symphony No. 5, "Kalmar Nyckel," (1969) was written on commission to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the founding of a Swedish colony, New Sweden, in what is now Delaware. And it was given its premiere by the Delaware Symphony, conducted by this disc's main conductor, Stephen Gunzenhauser. Here, as in the other two symphonies, Gunzenhauser, a talented American conductor who has recorded a lot of interesting music for various labels, leads the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz. The symphony is a 30-minute, one-movement work that nonetheless divides into three main sections. The first is emphatic and toccata-like, with frequent fanfares. The second is mournful, perhaps in recollection that New Sweden did not survive. The third is high-spirited, even brash, but with an undercurrent of disquiet. It ends, as Lees marks this section, 'joyously' with the blaze of color I mentioned above.
The music on these discs would appeal to anyone who enjoys the music of, say, Paul Creston, David Diamond, or Walter Piston. And it is the equal of those.
Review by Scott Morrison