Piano Music, 1947-2005
* 6 Ornamental Etudes
* 3 Preludes
* Sonata Breve
Mirian Conti, piano
Toccata Classics 0069 Total time: 71:39
Summary for the Busy Executive: Steel and stillness.
The old CRI recording label made it its mission to record those American
composers who didn't get recorded. As a teen, I learned a lot of American
music through those LPs. However, they didn't have the best production
values. Very few people recall them fondly for their sound, the great
album covers, front-rank performers, or even sensible programming. Very
often, one got a hodge-podge of pretty much unrelated work. On one such
miscellany, a piece leapt out at me: the Prologue, Capriccio, and Epilogue
of Benjamin Lees. I'd never heard of Lees, let alone his music, but he
instantly became someone whose stuff I looked for.
I should say that at that point, Lees represented for me the musically
far-out - at least, the farthest out I was willing or even knew to go.
After all, Schoenberg was then terra ignota to me. I see Lees now, more
than forty years later, as beyond conservative or progressive - rather
an individual. In a cultural environment eager for the next novelty,
he has continued to do his own thing - a dramatic neoclassicism, free
of Stravinskian pastiche, darker than Piston, more direct than Diamond.
Lees, however, didn't spring from nowhere. He studied formally in
California with Ingolf Dahl and Halsey Stevens, among others. It wasn't
a happy fit, and later Lees began a remarkable apprenticeship under
George Antheil, who taught him free of charge. I suspect that Antheil
didn't concern himself with basic technique, but rather helped discuss
and dissect the scores Lees was writing at the time. It says much for
Antheil that his apprentice's music sounds nothing like his own. On the
other hand, I doubt that anyone could have turned Lees into a clone. He
has always struck me as someone who has to discover for himself.
I've not heard much of Lees's very early music, before Antheil, so I
can't talk really knowledgably about Antheil's contribution to Lees's
growth. In this regard, I may read too much into the Toccata from 1947.
Lees talks about how it typified what other composers wrote at the time.
Essentially, it takes off from Prokofiev and perhaps a bit of Bartok.
However, beyond that lies something individually striking: a real feeling
for form and for saying exactly what one means, without static. I should
say that, pace Lees, perhaps he absorbed something from Dahl and Stevens
after all, since the same kind of clarity also occurs in their music as
well. Lees also writes idiomatic piano music and has produced a healthy
bit of it, with at least three concerti and four sonatas, as well as
substantial sets of pieces. Of his piano works, I first got to know the
fourth sonata from a Columbia LP of Gary Graffman's, back when the label
occasionally issued a modern work written after 1950, other than one by
Bernstein or Copland. The sonata kept company with a Prokofiev sonata
and, as I recall, the Bartok Out of Doors and held its own. Lord knows
how or even whether Graffman had to fight the A&R guys, but it was
certainly one of my favorite discs. I hope somebody made money.
The 6 Ornamental Etudes (1957) contain a lot of what makes Lees such
an original. Unusually, the composer makes etudes out of, at bottom,
ornamental figures and elevates something normally considered superficial
or added-on to primary interest. Furthermore, like Chopin, he makes
real music out of them as well. The etudes not only concern certain
piano techniques, but modes of expression. For example, the extraordinary
second etude - much of it a single line of music - demands that the
performer get the piano to sing. Furthermore, each item, despite its
brevity, conveys something deeper, without either inflating a trivial
idea or short-changing a profound one. The longer you listen, the more
they seem part of a whole. One or two all by themselves seem less than
they do as members of the group. The range of emotion is big as well,
and the emotions complex. The third etude emits a peculiar atmosphere,
like hearing an abandoned wrist watch ticking away in an otherwise quiet
room. The finale reminds me a lot of stride piano in its finger-energy,
regardless of what Lees had in mind. A wonderful set.
Lees wrote the 3 Preludes for Joseph Bloch, who championed the Piano
Concerto #1 (his performance available on Pierian 0010). Like the
Ornamental Etudes, this set means more than it says. The first prelude
sandwiches unsettledness between proclamation (like the opening to the
Bach Toccata and Fugue in d), while the second reverses it. The third
has a more dramatic shape, a confrontation between two fairly tumultuous
The last two items on the program show the most ambition. The Sonata
Breve is in fact a large sonata movement (12 minutes long) with, as Lees
puts it, some "surprises." In general, its structure follows first subject
group, second subject group, development, and recap (not strict), with
the first subjects declamatory and agitated and the second subjects
lyrical. However, the real interest is again the way the musical ideas
bump and jostle one another and how they get transformed in the process.
There's a concerto "feel" to the movement as well as, at one point toward
the end, a section analogous to a cadenza. The main idea is a call to
arms followed by driven triplets. Lees gets a lot of mileage out of the
triplet idea, and in the exposition the theme changes shape as it goes
along, the rough corners getting knocked off until you have something
close to diatonicism. The triplet drives much of the movement along,
until the thematic climax, where Lees straightens out the triplet into
duple time - a particularly satisfying outcome and a way to release the
Lees wrote the three movements of Odyssey - designated "No.1," "No. 2,"
and "No. 3" - decades apart (the first written for John Ogdon and the
last two for Mirian Conti) but grouped them under one heading. Do we
consider them a whole or separable items? I can see it either way.
All three span quite a stretch, as befits the title. All three share a
general, uneasy mood. As opposed to Lees's usual iron logic and mastery
of classical form, they ramble, moving associatively, albeit coherently,
from one idea to another. For my money, the material becomes more
concentrated from the first piece to the last. We start with something
very much like classical motives in the first, but despite some neat
transformations, motific manipulation takes a back seat to exploration
of piano textures. Instead of growing something like a sonata or even
a Wagnerian-symphonic form, it's as if the composer strings his ideas
together like bits of colored beads. Lees leaves the security of classical
form for a sole reliance on his ear. The second Odyssey takes texture
much further, into an exploration of ornament. Most of the ideas in
this piece reduce to a descending half-step, elaborated in various ways.
It says a lot for Lees's invention that he keeps a tight grip on a
listener's interest. The third part of the collection is in many ways
the strangest of all, with an atmosphere similar to what Alice found in
the woods. The logic becomes even more dream-like and the major unifier
is variations on a texture (rather than a theme) of broken octaves. Lees
risks much over such a long haul. I'd bet that when he began the piece,
he had only an inexact idea where or how he'd end up. However, he has
mastered musical rhetoric to such an extent that he's internalized the
sense of musical time and how to shape it. Lees mentions the influence
of Surrealism on his work, but to me he's closer to a sculptor who
continually works the clay in his hands until he finds a shape to satisfy
Lees's piano music has obviously attracted great champions. I know best
the work of Ian Hobson, heard in the second piano concerto and on a disc
(Albany 227) of more of Lees's solo work. Argentinean-born Mirian Conti,
an artist new to me, does a bang-up job. Her fingers not only mold the
steel and fire of Lees's idiom, but she has a firm grasp on what usually
comes down to complex structure. Her control of loud and soft is superb,
capable both of sudden spikes without banging and smooth crescendo and
especially diminuendo. One can see why Lees wanted to write for her.
One of my favorite CDs this year.
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