LEES Symphonies: Nos. 2, 3, 5. Etudes for Piano and Orchestra

LEES: Symphonies: Nos. 2, 3, 5. Etudes for Piano and Orchestra • Stephen Gunzenhauser, cond; Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; James Dick (pn); Robert Spano, cond; Texas Festival O• ALBANY TROY-564/65 (2CDs: 54:41; 47:58)

An approximate contemporary of such figures as Ned Rorem and Peter Mennin, American composer Benjamin Lees turns 80 years old this year. The release at hand serves as an excellent acknowledgment of this milestone, as it offers four of Lees’s major works, spanning the years 1958-1997, validating his stature as one of this country’s finest living traditionalist composers. Listening to these two CDs will leave no uncertainty as to the nature of Lees’s creative artistry. Shunning the lyrical warmth and harmonic opulence that might endear him to conservatives, yet too traditional in compositional technique to cause a stir among trendier listeners and commentators, Lees is one of those lonely figures whose music is destined to attract a small, if discriminating, following-those who appreciate the modern American symphony as a serious abstract statement unattached to any of the “isms” that serve as taxonomical conveniences for us commentators. Not only does his music lack the visceral melodramatic immediacy of neo-romanticism, but also the familiar formal and developmental processes of neo-classicism. On the other hand, Lees never succumbed to the fashionable lure of serialism in its heyday, nor did he adopt its disjunct or fragmentary gestures, nor in recent years has he ventured in the direction of the “new accessibility.” No, these four works are simply solid-if rather dour-musical statements, articulated with great skill, conviction, and purpose, somewhat like William Schuman at his most severe, or late Piston, or Robert Simpson, or some of the other Northern European symphonists. Such music is quite difficult to describe, because it is non-referential-not only to extrinsic or programmatic elements, but also to analogues from the realm of human emotion. Its existence is wholly bounded by itself.

This is not, however, to suggest that Lees’s music is expressively sterile or purely cerebral. From a basic foundation that seems rooted in the most uncompromising works of Bartók, Lees has developed a distinctive style of his own: a grim drama of musical gestures—often ominous and belligerent in character-that unfolds with a fluent structural coherence achieved via a thorough mastery of all the component dynamics. With a subtle control of harmonic dissonance within a freely chromatic tonal language, and a propulsive rhythmic power, Lees often achieves a true eloquence. While his music is not unwavering in quality (see my review of his Symphony No. 4 in 22:5), the four works presented here are consistently compelling.

Symphony No. 2 (1958) is the earliest offering here, and, understandably, the one in which Bartók’s influence is most readily apparent. It is a stern, vigorous work in three well-shaped and carefully-balanced movements, with a forward thrust that never flags, until the unusually subdued ending. In this committed and reasonably polished performance, the symphony both demands and rewards attentive, focused listening.

Symphony No. 3 reflects its date of composition (1968) in the nod to the quest for “relevance” suggested by its incorporation of a plaintive, recurring motif whose presentation by the tenor saxophone lends a suggestion of jazz . But this voice of nocturnal loneliness is neatly and convincingly integrated into the symphonic rhetoric, without the ridiculously incongruous juxtapositions that have marred so many hybrid experiments. Both this work and its predecessor were recorded by the Louisville Orchestra during the LP era, No.2 conducted by Robert Whitney, No. 3 by Jorge Mester. These new performances are available to us with the advantages of an updated technology, but they are not really superior to the earlier performances from a musical standpoint, displaying the same interpretive conviction weakened somewhat by a lack of polish and finesse.

Perhaps the most immediately appealing music on the set is the 1974 Etudes for Piano and Orchestra. Recorded in concert in 2000, separately from the symphonies, the sound is rather flat and boxy, and decidedly not of studio quality, although it is sufficiently clear and detailed. But matters of sound quality are quickly forgotten once the work takes off. There is nary a dull moment as each of these five challenging movements pursues a rigorous course of taut intensity with tremendous-at times demonic-rhythmic vigor. Pianist James Dick, to whom the work is dedicated, presents a stunning performance. 

Composed in 1997, Lees’s Fifth Symphony is the most recent work included here. Comprising a single 28-minute movement subdivided into three sections, the symphony was commissioned by the Kalmar Nyckel Commemorative Committee to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the founding of a Swedish community in Delaware. Although, interestingly, in his program notes Lees attempts to relate the musical expression to aspects of the event commemorated by the commission, the work seems to me just as abstract and absolute as the others offered here. In fact, as fine as each of these pieces is, I find this symphony-perhaps owing to a stronger sense of dramatic integration-the most compelling of the four Lees symphonies with which I am familiar. And while it displays some of the striking reminiscences of Shostakovich found in No. 4, it is far more tightly articulated than its predecessor. Indeed, I would recommend both the Symphony No. 5 and the Etudes as ideal points of entry for the listener not yet familiar with Lees’s music.

In conclusion, I heartily recommend this two-disc set to all enthusiasts of the modern American symphony who are as yet unfamiliar with this composer. Those who already know his work will probably not need my urging.