LEES: Sonatas for Violin and Piano: No. 1; No. 2; No. 3. Invenzione for Violin Solo

LEES: Sonatas for Violin and Piano: No. 1; No. 2; No. 3. Invenzione for Violin Solo. Ellen Orner, violin; Joel Wizansky, piano. ALBANY TROY-138 [DDD];71:04. Produced by George Orner.

Benjamin Lees (b. 1924) is a perplexing case: a serious artist who writes music of considerable substance that reflects a gritty creative urgency and a respect for traditional musical values, while exhibiting a consummate mastery of the techniques that support these values. His language is rooted in an orientation around Prokofiev and Bartok, but has evolved considerably from those coordinates. Hence his mature works display a rather dissonant harmonic language, with an attenuated — but discernable– sense of tonality, and a strong rhythmic thrust. Measured against the major trends in American music, Lees emerges as quite conservative, with little reference to compositional fashions that held sway after 1945. Yet I suspect that few listeners whose tastes center around the classical mainstream would find Lees’ music appealing. There is something missing from it that prevents it from exerting a really strong attraction– the kind of attraction that might generate a lasting enthusiasm. Every time I listen to it, I appreciate it more, yet I rarely turn to it spontaneously. I think the answer is that Lees’ music lacks a strong personal profile, i.e., what is generally meant by “personality.” Even a composer like Walter Piston, often damned with faint praise as “academic,” displayed a good dealmore panache and flair. All this is most unfortunate, because — as this disc makes abundantly clear — Lees has written some truly fine, meaningful, and masterful music. 

The earliest work is the Violin Sonata No. 1, dating from 1953. On the one hand, it is rather conventional in character, shape, and gesture, with strong echoes of Prokofiev. On the other hand,it is a vigorous, ambitious, and assured statement without an uncertain moment. One might compare it to, for example, John Corigliano’s Violin Sonata, composed a decade later, but inhabiting very similar stylistic territory. Lees’ work impresses as more finely wrought, but the later work lingers longer in the memory, although much of its charm is second-hand. Next comes Invenzione for violin solo, composed in 1965. Works forunaccompanied violin comprise one of the least ingratiating genres I know. Nonetheless, this work, premiered by Ruggiero Ricci, captures one’s attention better than most. The Violin Sonata No. 2 of 1973 — like its predecessor, in three movements — shows more traces of Bartok’s influence than Prokofiev’s. Its density of content is somewhat greater, making a stronger, more complex statement. Again, its tone is serious and high-minded, and its craftsmanship is impeccable, yet one searches in vain for a sense of temperament.

Sonata No. 3, composed in 1989, is the shortest of the three, comprisingone 18-minute movement. Without abandoning the type of language found in the preceding music, this work is still more complex, more concentrated in its focus, and even denser in developmental intensity. All three sonatas grow more rewarding with repeated hearings. Moscow-born violinist Ellen Orner offers performances that reveal the same uncompromising, intensely serious-minded attitude found in the music. Her technique is excellent, tone is quite attractive, and her interpretations show commitment and intelligent artistry. Pianist Joel Wizansky’s contributions are worthy of the company. This is a superb recording that deserves far more attention than it is likely to receive. Listeners interested in this area of the repertoire will not be disappointed.