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CLASSICAL  March 2005

CLASSICAL March 2005

Subject:

American Piano Concerti

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 14 Mar 2005 07:47:58 -0600

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text/plain

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Benjamin Lees: Piano Concerto No. 1
Ernest Gold: Piano Concerto*

Joseph Bloch, piano; Marisa Regules*, piano; National Orchestral
Association/John Barnett, Leon Barzin*.
Pierian 0010  Total time: 53:11

Summary for the Busy Executive: Tonal composers in the Forties and Fifties.

Both Benjamin Lees and Ernest Gold have led peripatetic lives, at least
as young men, and both settled in sunny Southern Cal.  Gold, of course,
is known for his movie scores, most famously, I should think, that for
Exodus, whose title song became a monster pop hit in various arrangements.
He was married for a time to Marni Nixon, the singing voice of many movie
stars, and is the father of rocker and record producer Andrew Gold.  He
has, on occasion, produced concert works.  Benjamin Lees scored, I think,
two animated shorts, but has followed the more usual classical-composer
route.  People know him mainly for his concerti and other orchestral
works, although he has built up a large and impressive body of work in
just about every genre.  Both men, however, stood outside the post-Webernian
serial mainstream after World War II, their music showing more in common
with pre-war Modernism.  Both men also studied with George Antheil --
Gold after composing his concerto.  It says much for Antheil as a teacher
that neither Lees nor Gold sounds like him or like one another.

Gold's piano concerto brims full of references to composers popular in
the Forties, when the piece appeared -- a little Khachaturian, Prokofiev,
even Rachmaninoff and Gershwin.  It's an attractive, though admittedly
minor work.  The orchestral and piano writing seem expert, and the themes
themselves glitter and sing.  I balk at the architecture, which teeters
a bit, although not quite as loose as some reviewers have made out.  Some
have called it, without meaning a compliment, "movie music," but Gold
writes tighter than the flow of movie narrative allows.  Apparently,
people hear a Rachmaninoff swoop or swell and immediately think "movie
music," without considering the current context and apparently without
actually listening to movie music.  I do object to Gold's having to stop
and start up again at key points -- notably at the end of the exposition
and the beginning of the development in the first movement -- and to an
unconvincing first-movement ending.  Throughout, Gold tends to rely too
heavily on sequence (restating the same idea on, usually, a higher pitch
and linking these together in long chains), rather than creating
transformational development within a movement.  Still, ideas from earlier
movements turn up disguised in later movements, and the attractiveness
of Gold's music overcomes most of the problems.  The slow movement, for
example, is gorgeous, although, like the first it comes to an abrupt,
unsatisfying end.  The finale, the weakest of the three mainly due to
an unoriginal appropriation of Gershwin's language, nevertheless contains
some fun things, including a mock fugato.

Still, the Lees stands on an altogether higher level of accomplishment
-- not a surprise, since he's turned out to become one of the outstanding
concerto writers of the past 75 years.  Lee's idiom is spikier than
Gold's, showing much in common with American Romantic neo-classicists
-- an apparent contradiction, but not really -- like Piston, Diamond,
and Mennin.  Lees depends less than Gold on previous gestures, having
worked out his own vocabulary and musical images almost from the beginning
of his career.  Lees also comes up with memorable, if not hummable,
themes that also generate variants of themselves.  This gives almost
everything he writes great cohesion, and the listener seldom gets lost.
Lees's instinct for the dramatic, strong contrast of expression, coupled
with a flair for rhythms that get the body moving, give his works strong
forward impulse.  The piano concerto essentially sweeps you up by the
back of your collar and doesn't relax its grip until the end.  There's
none of the stopping and starting again we find in the Gold.  Lees masters
symphonic rhetoric and argument.  The first movement, a toccata, drives
to the end, with a slight rhetorical relaxation for a lyrical theme.
The second movement, slower but no less intense, ignores the conventional.
It's an odd movement -- much of it kind of a mix-meter march or procession
as well as the more familiar Romantic "song" -- which ramps up and falls
back, at times threatening to break out into yet another toccata.  This
last impression may stem from Lees's penchant for subdividing rhythm and
cross-accent.  The toccata figures bound out in the finale.  The emotional
landscape of the concerto's a bit unusual as well.  It's a busy terrain,
with marching figures, hints of the Baroque, brief outpourings of dramatic
singing, and Bartokian energy.  But a psychic restlessness permeates
everything.  Listening to this work, I finally understood why certain
critics allied Lees's music with surrealist painting, even though Lees's
music is normally far more energetic than most Surrealism.  It's hard,
after all, to write a surrealist musical work of any length.  How would
such a thing hang together?  Indeed, most Surrealist music consists of
short sections, like Lord Berners's Triumph of Neptune.  Lees, however,
grabs onto the emotional disconcert of Surrealism -- particularly something
like Man Ray's gigantic flying lips in L'Heure de l'Observatoire -- and
then writes tight.

The performers in the Gold do okay.  They reach a standard familiar to
those of us who have collected infrequently-performed music.  However,
Lees gets much more from the orchestra and especially conductor John
Barnett and pianist Joseph Bloch.  Bloch, a name new to me as a pianist
(though not as a writer), plays heroically, with fire, and yet clearly
understands the structure of the work.  As David Letterman says, hold
on to your wigs and keys.

The sound seems to derive from radio air checks, with attendant boxiness.
The Gold comes from acetates made in 1945, the Lees from quarter-track
tape from 1963.  Pierian applied CEDAR and Waves noise reduction to the
Gold.  Nevertheless, you can't get these works otherwise.  The Pierian
Recording Society has in a very short time created one of the most
interesting and important catalogues around, including, of course, CDs
of Debussy, Scriabin, Ravel, and Granados playing their own music.  We
classical collectors complain about the old-line "majors" releasing the
same old stuff.  Pierian has explored odd corners of repertory and
performance with taste and intelligence.

Steve Schwartz

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