LEES: Piano Sonata No. 4. Fantasy Variations. Mirrors

LEES  Piano Sonata No. 4.  Fantasy Variations.  Mirrors · Ian Hobson (pn) ·ALBANY TROY-227 (65:15)

I recently (Fanfare 20:5, pp. 179-80)reviewed a disc (Albany TROY-138) featuring Benjamin Lees’s three violin sonatas.  There I expressed a certain ambivalence about the composer, asserting that he “has written some truly fine, meaningful, and masterful music,” and praising his “consummate mastery of the techniques that support traditional musical values,” while observing that his work “lacks a strong personal profile, i.e., what is generally meant by ‘personality.’”  I came regretfully to the conclusion that “few listeners whose tastes center around the classical mainstream would find Lees’s music appealing,” although “every time I listen to it, I appreciate it more.”   Rereading that review after having familiarized myself with the music on this new release, I realize that my assessment still holds true, especially the last phrase just quoted.  Hence, both my enjoyment of the music and my  admiration for the composer have continued to grow.  There is something courageous about his apparent refusal to concede to practicalities, either musicopolitical, economic, or narcissistic.  Yet the perplexing issue of “personality” remains.

For me, as for many other listeners, the sense of an identifiable character in the music facilitates the assimilation of a new composer into my psycho-musical data-processing system.  In the case of Lees, I have been peripherally familiar with his music for more than 25 years, but most of what I had heard had seemed dismissable as uninspired Bartók-Prokofiev noodling, the few exceptions to this being “flukes.”  But absorbing the violin disc, followed now by this new recording of piano music, has brought about a whole shift in my conceptualization.  Yes, the earlier music had a strong Bartók-Prokofiev flavor, and yes, maybe that influence persisted for quite a while in Lees’s work.  But some of that music was quite strong in its own right.  For example, the Fourth Piano Sonata truly blew me away when I first heard Gary Graffman’s knockout recording from the mid-1960s on Columbia Masterworks.  That I had regarded as one of those “flukes.”

Lees’s Piano Sonata No. 4 (1963) was commissioned by, dedicated to, and first performed by Graffman, who recorded it soon afterward.  It is an ambitious work in three movements, with (as mentioned) an unmistakable debt to Prokofiev, but considerably more complex and involved than any comparable work of his.  While so relentlessly aggressive as to suggest the brutal Czech group represented by Kabelác and Fiser at times, it is quite an impressive and fully consummated achievement.  Graffman’s interpretation emphasized the sonata’s hammerlike pugnacity above all else.  The English pianist Ian Hobson, currently on the faculty of the University of Illinois, is a little less driven, his articulation warmer and less brittle.  He offers a somewhat mellower approach, but without slowing the tempo down by more than a half-minute or so, and with no less meticulous articulation.  Hobson’s approach is quite eloquent, and gives a bit more weight and significance to the second movement, but I must admit to preferring Graffman’s manic energy.

The two other works are examples of the kind of music Lees has composed since around 1970, when he was in his mid forties.  Here the baggage from the past seems to have fallen away, leaving in its wake a rather serious, impersonal voice quite difficult to characterize.  But I now see its lack of “personality” as a sort of unromantic self-effacement.  There is a real creative power here, a strong, commanding voice — authentic, uncompromising, and quite abstract, yet consistently traditional in the logic of its approach to structure.  The music is varied in character and tonal, if not likely to be heard that way.  It is neither “classical” nor “romantic” in any meaningful sense, neo- or otherwise.

Fantasy Variations dates from 1983 and consists of 17 short variations on an original theme.  First performed by Emanuel Ax, it is a virtuoso work.  The variations are concise and highly varied in character, displaying a wealth of compositional techniques and keyboard devices.  Very similar in language and style are the six Mirrors.  Lees composed the first four in 1992, especially for Hobson.  He then wrote two more over the next few years and, according to the program notes, there are more on the way.  Of course, each piece — of two to four minutes duration–can stand on its own independently.

As indicated earlier, this music is destined from the start to reach a very small audience.  There is absolutely nothing meretricious or ingratiating that might win listeners’ sympathies — no “cheap thrills,” no extramusical references — neither poetic, historical, nor affective, no fashionable systems or isms, no pretty melodies, no rich harmonies — just a very solid balance among high quality of material, high quality of content, and high quality of workmanship.  In this sense Lees shares something (though not his “sound”) in common with Frank Martin and (even more) with the late music of Walter Piston.  I strongly urge listeners who appreciate those two to seek out Lees.  A bit of patience will be rewarded generously, as more and more dimensions catch one’s attention.  Though perhaps not grasped right away, there are real depth and substance here.