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BENJAMIN LEES b. 1924 Symphony No 4 Memorial Candles (198.5) Kimball Wheeler (mezzo) James Buswell (violin) National SO of the Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar rec 15-19, 31 May 1998 NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559002 [61.42]

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Benjamin Lees' is an American composer of Russian parentage. He was born in China and came to the USA in 1925. He studied in California with Halsey Stevens and Ingolf Dahl (ever heard Dahl's saxophone concerto?). He also studied with George Antheil from 1949 to 1954.

He enjoyed some success and won various bursaries and scholarships, studying in France and remaining in Europe for seven years. Lees received a UNESCO award for his string quartet No 2 and the Bax Society Medal was awarded to him in a surprise move - he was the first non-British composer to receive the award.

His piano concerto No. 2 was played by Gary Graffman with the Boston SO under Leinsdorf and in 1969 completed his third symphony. A trio of Bicentennial commissions secured his reputation. The Dallas SO (much associated with his teacher, Antheil) has commissioned three of his works. The present symphony is the third.

The symphony commemorates the fortieth anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. The work has a lofty grandeur redolent of Janacek, Shostakovich and even the nobler moments of Copland's Lincoln Portrait. This is a nobility battered by scorching sadness. Fanfares in spasm rend the land and after five minutes the solo violin enters touching off music of virtuosic eloquence. The movement ends in Shostakovich-like yelping.

The second movement's extended cello solo soon establishes a mood of lamentation and bitter confidence. This articulate statement can be put alongside Martinu's and Alan Bush's Lidice works and Britten's War Requiem. Lees delivers a much closer emotional nexus than Britten. The roles taken by the solo voice and solo violin wrest a skull-dark disquiet from the silence and some of the music reminded me of Martinu's Gilgamesh.

The finale blends bird cries and sinister military manoeuvres. The Grimes Sea Interludes seem to be a presence. The solo violin dances in worship articulating inwardness and self-absorption. There are parallels in mood with the Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs though there is a tougher spine in this work and a greater variety and foundation. The brass at the close sound like the more climactic moments from Arthur Bliss's John Blow Meditations.

The impressive solo violinist is James Buswell whom we last heard in the Naxos coupling of the Piston violin concertos and before that in RVW's violin Concerto for RCA/BMG with Previn and the LSO.

The notes by the composer and others have been extended by the American Classics series producers Victor and Marina A Ledin. They are in English only and provide full sung texts.

Altogether this is a document of tragedy in our times. It remains to be seen whether it has staying power. For now it seems to be a work of enduring strength. All this at bargain price.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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