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Benjamin LEES (b.1924)
Symphony No. 2 (1957) [26.09]
Symphony No. 3 (1968) [28.27]
Symphony No. 5 Kalmar Nyckel (1998) [28.23]
Etudes for piano and orchestra (1974) [23.41]
Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Stephen Gunzenhauser (symphonies)
James Dick (piano) (Etudes)
Texas Festival Orchestra/Robert Spano (Etudes)
David Jäger (tenor saxophone); Lars Lauer (percussion) (Symphony No. 3)
rec. no dates given for the symphonies; 17 June 2000, live (Etudes) DDD
ALBANY TROY564/5 [54.41+47.58]

Ever since encountering one of Lees' works on an LP I have wanted to know more. In 1998 I reviewed the Fourth Symphony on Naxos and now, some four years later, this Albany set has emerged.

The Second Symphony was a Louisville commission premiered by them under their long-standing conductor, Robert Whitney on 3 December 1958. It is an athletic piece: flighty, not voluptuous, its wings spread in monochrome. There is no superfluity of gesture or texture but room is made for brassily mordant aggression in the scherzo. The symphony follows a design of andante-scherzo-adagio. It is not especially American or jazzy though some hints of that appear in the scherzo. Use of side drum and percussion and lyrical voicing paralleling Howard Hanson's Sixth Symphony (the most 'modern' of the Hanson canon) are to be heard. This is without the unembarrassed access of heroic melody associated with Hanson. Lees writes in a style not at all tough like Carter or Sessions but he is by no means an unbuttoned romantic. On the other hand he is not as acerbic as Schuman. There are some chargingly truculent Alwynisms in the adagio (5.08 tr. 3).

The Third Symphony was premiered in Detroit on 16 January 1969 conducted by Sixten Ehrling. It is a work of three substantial andante movements prefaced and separated by three Interludes each no longer than two minutes. The Interludes feature the tenor saxophone in one of those snake-strike explosions of sinuous lyric energy. The first full movement is gesturally belligerent with cliff-edge fortissimo melodramas from the brass while the second has just as much voltage and velocity but skitters along quietly. It is into quiet discontinuity that the final flickering and expansive andante opens. Lees' penchant for impressionistic grand guignol is in plentiful evidence here but something more emotionally momentous rises impressively at 3.05 although at its peak ghosts seem to float free and beckon.

The half hour and single movement Fifth Symphony is divided from the Third by the Fourth Symphony recorded on Naxos American Classics 8.559002. The Fourth is Lees' very personal warning about the Holocaust. The Fifth was premiered by the Delaware Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stephen Gunzenhauser. Like the others it is completely tonal, gritty, lucidly scored, seething with activity, not inclined to long singing lines and certainly terse. The accelerating trudge at 6.30 is rather like Panufnik in his few fast and furious movements. The restless rhythmic figure that dominates much of the work is remorseless. It is even picked up in the percussion at 11.49 (Shostakovich 15's infernal clockwork?). The surging tragic string writing at 20.09 belies my reference to the absence of long singing lines. Here they feature in excoriatingly sharp focus like the more serene writing for the violins in Vaughan Williams' Fourth Symphony. The work rises to considerable and magniloquent eminence with a strongly accented version of the immanent rhythmic figure now transformed into sweeping majesty and driven ever upward on the updraft of the brass choir. There is something of Taras Bulba about this music but it is superbly individual and confident. The performance will have you leaping up to applaud. A superb work played with a rare passion. Lees must have had his fears about this project. They were surely dispelled quickly.

Lees and his team must have been extremely pleased with his Rheinland-Pfalz sessions. The results sound completely idiomatic.

Albany, Karl Miller (whose open-handed generosity has greatly and enjoyably expanded my knowledge of music) and Günter Appenheim abandon the German orchestra for the Texas Festival Orchestra conducted by Robert Spano. James Dick is piano soloist in the Etudes. I know Dick's work from an impressive off-air tape of the unsung Vincent Persichetti piano concerto. The Etudes (all five of them) were premiered by the Houston Symphony conducted by Lawrence Foster on 28 October 1974. The piece shares a nostalgic atmosphere with the Third Symphony which makes sense because it dates from only five years after that work. Parts of the work inhabit a louche underworld - seeming to link with the back streets of Marseilles as haunted by Constant Lambert and evoked in his Piano Concerto and Elegiac Blues. There are incursions from William Schuman's monolithic brass writing (Sixth and Seventh Symphonies) - scorching and squat - in the last Etude. This is a live concert recording captured complete with warmly appreciative applause.

It is a pleasure to pay tribute to the bodies that supported this heroically conceived and consummated project with grants: the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, the Swedish Music Information Service of the Swedish Consul General and the Alice M Ditson Fund of Columbia University.

The composer's notes touch lightly on the technicalities, describe the passage of the music but deny us any knowledge of personal allusion or inspiration. We must take the music as it stands. I am afraid I am left no wiser about Kalmar Nyckel except that a commemorative committee bearing his name commissioned the symphony. (see below)

I have been very pleased to make the acquaintance of these symphonies (and the Etudes). The Fifth is a single span of some moment and grandeur. I look forward to hearing more.

Rob Barnett

"Kalmar Nyckel" is the name of the ship that carried the first Swedish immigrants to what is now Wilmington, Delaware.I hope this clears up the mystery.

Benjamin Lees


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