LEES: Symphony No. 4, “Memorial Candles”

LEES Symphony No. 4, “Memorial Candles” – Theodor Kuchar, cond; National SO of the Ukraine; Kimball Wheeler (mez); James Buswell (vn) – NAXOS 8.559002 (61:42)

Naxos continues its ambitious and promising “American Classics” series with a new release devoted entirely to Benjamin Lees’s hour-long Fourth Symphony. Regular readers are aware of fine recent recordings of Lees’s violin music (see Fanfare 20:5) and of his music for piano solo (Fanfare 21:3), but– not terribly surprisingly– his five symphonies and other large-scale works are represented rather scantily on recording. Like Robert Muczynski (also featured on Naxos’s “American Classics”—see last issue), 75-year-old Lees is one of those American composers whose music is played far more often than it is discussed in print in any depth. Indeed, the biographical material accompanying this disc documents a large, varied, and actively growing body of work that is performed regularly throughout the country and, to some extent, elsewhere in the world as well. Lees’s earlier music has struck me as an outgrowth of the rather harsh, aggressive neoclassicism of the Bartók-Prokofiev nexus. His mature works, however, avoid the classical forms and regular patterning of neoclassicism, yet also lack the melodic dominance, harmonic richness, and direct emotionalism of neoromanticism, while refusing to adopt the strictures of serialism. Though not systematically atonal, these works do lack easily-identifiable tonal centers. In short, aligned to no “ism,” they occupy the dissonant, tenuously tonal middleground that is typically scorned by both general listeners and contemporary-music partisans. Nevertheless, in general, I have found Lees’s music to be serious in intent, masterful in craftsmanship, and consistently compelling on its own terms, though somewhat lacking in that elusive quality often called “personality,” by which is meant a musical language distinctive enough to be unmistakably recognizable, with expressive content that collectively conveys a sense of psychological unity.

Lees’s recent symphonies tend to be simpler in texture and more explicitly expressive than his recent chamber music. No exception to this is his Symphony No. 4, “Memorial Candles,” written in 1985 as a homage to victims of the Holocaust. Commissioned by the Dallas Symphony, a recurrent Lees patron, the work incorporates several extended violin solos, as well as three Holocaust-related poems by Nobel Prize laureate Nelly Sachs. Its dramatic character is clear from the start. In fact, the opening 2½ minutes are so breathtakingly arresting in their emotional intensity that one wonders, as with Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, where the work can go from here. What soon emerges, however, is a realization that the entire symphony is overshadowed by the ghost of Shostakovich — certainly one of the leading musical commentators on the Holocaust period.

Mediocre critics and pretentious amateurs are often quick to point a derisive finger at “derivative” moments, shouting “gotcha,” as if there were some disgrace in a musical passage’s resembling a passage by another composer. On the other hand, there is a problem when the essence of a composer’s expressive content is subsumedwithin the work of a prior composer (as in the case of Bernard Heiden and Hindemith, discussed elsewhere in this issue), or when one consistently turns to another as a model for developing musical ideas (as Leonard Bernstein often did with Copland).

Although this is not usually the case with Lees, the bold strokes and broad canvas of the Fourth Symphony invoke the musical persona of Shostakovich so consistently (though without the manic bombast, for better and worse) that one is hard-pressed to believe such resemblance is unintentional, although no reference to this effect appears in the program notes. (If some explanation along these lines has been omitted, I hope I will be so informed.) Most of the music is slow and declamatory — as in much of Shostakovich–rather than contrapuntally developmental, giving the work a sprawling quality. The first movement, “Visitations,” is a 21-minute orchestral tableau that consistently suggests the first movement of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony. The second movement, “Manifestations,” begins with the motif that opens Shostakovich’s Fifth, and even — I swear! — includes the DSCH motif (see 17:08, for example). It is in this movement that the mezzo-soprano appears, in settings of two of the Sachs poems (the track list incorrectly indicates one poem per movement). The third movement, “Transcendence,” is the shortest, with the fewest Shostakovich reminiscences. However, by this time the constant somberness of mood, with a minimum of contrasting material, begins to cause the work to pall.

In conclusion, at this point, with the symphony still relatively unfamiliar to me, I must rate it as a disappointment of noble intentions and ambitious dimensions. The references to Shostakovich bother me far less than the monotony of mood and the lack of forward motion. Yet despite my reservations, admirers of Lees’s music should not overlook what is clearly a major effort — especially not at Naxos’s low price. The performance by the Ukrainian Symphony Orchestra is quite good. Not yet forty years old, conductor Theodore Kuchar is establishing an impressive reputation in both Colorado and the Ukraine (!) Though they occupy a relatively small portion of the work’s expanse, the Sachs settings are sung beautifully by mezzo-soprano Kimball Wheeler. Lees has interspersed violin solos as a mode of commentary, because “the violin was traditionally the ‘soul’ instrument of Central and Eastern Europe.” James Buswell renders them meticulously. One more unfortunate point must be mentioned: The program notes do Lees something of a disservice. While the biographical portion provides an adequate summary of the composer’s recent accomplishments, the section that describes his music crosses the line from critical commentary to crass promotional writing, with the sort of empty clichés and hyperbolic rhetoric usually encountered in puff-pieces by amateur publicists attempting to promote mediocre talents of no repute. Consider: Lees’s music “[explores] the full range of tonality through development of subject matter. . . . Lees the technician is always the master, not the servant of his art. . . . Each new work [represents] a graceful display of compositional flight in all its aspects.” Lees is far too distinguished a figure to be hyped so blatantly. Perhaps Naxos will add his Fifth Symphony to their list of American Classics projects. I find it a stronger work than its predecessor.