About this Recording
8.559628 - LEES, B.: String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 and 6 (Cypress String Quartet)

Benjamin Lees (b. 1924)
String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 and 6


String Quartet No. 1 was completed in 1952 and given its première in Los Angeles in 1953. The piece received the first Fromm Foundation Award, and in 1954 was given its New York première by the legendary Budapest String Quartet. Writing of the performance, the music critic of the New Yorker Magazine Winthrop Sargeant remarked “Mr Lees’ quartet proved to be a very well-knit affair, quite fresh and original in style, and beautifully written for the instruments. I liked particularly its slow movement, which seemed to me one of the most distinguished things of its sort by a contemporary composer that I had heard in some time.” In 1955 the work was played by the Juilliard Quartet at Tanglewood.

The quartet is laid out in three movements—Moderato, Adagietto, and Allegro vivo. The first movement consists of two distinct subjects, the first brisk and energetic and the second more lyrical, both receiving formal developmental treatment. The second movement also has two distinct subjects, opening with a cantabile and moving steadily to the second Poco meno section. The movement as a whole is quite transparent and uncomplicated in its structure, ending quietly and calmly. The third movement is basically a rondo, opening with an energetic first subject that undergoes a slight development and enters a transition leading to a second subject marked Cantabile. This is expanded somewhat and leads to a transition back to the first subject. A development occurs followed by a brief transition to a third subject marked Espressivo. All subjects now undergo some development, a transition leads to the re-statement of the first subject and a spirited coda brings the movement to a close.

String Quartet No. 5 was completed in late summer 2001 for the Cypress String Quartet. It was commissioned by the Quartet as part of its Call & Response series. For this series, the Quartet selects two works from the standard quartet repertoire and commissions a third work that is to be based on inspiration derived from the two older works. Asked to respond to the quartets of Shostakovich and Britten, Benjamin Lees writes the following:

“I was drawn to Shostakovich when I was still in my early teens. His music always contained unexpected twists and turns both harmonically and rhythmically, and his sharp sardonic wit appealed to my own sense of humor. Since my taste in painting favored the Cubists and Surrealists, his music mirrored the elements found in those two schools. Shostakovich exposes raw nerves even as he suddenly reverses field and becomes jocular, only to draw the listener up short again with thematic material of somber beauty. The element of surprise is never far away. What appeals to me about Britten is his extremely refined sense of harmony and the ability to simply suggest a tonality before sliding away from it into a hazy suggestion of another. He can, briefly, whip into a full-blown tonal scale and then, quite suddenly, slide away into a harmonic haze. It always manages to keep the listener off balance.”

Lees’s Quartet No. 5 is in four movements. The first is marked Measured and is the most complex of the four. The movement is a continuous development of three contrasting elements. The second movement is marked Arioso. It opens with a lengthy dialogue between the two violins in the nature of a soliloquy. The aura of lyricism permeates this mood. It begins to alter abruptly with an outburst from the cello marked “menacing”. As the section loses power and grows quieter the two violins once again begin their romantic dialogue, this time at the very top of their instruments’ register. It is like two swallows turning over and over in air, arcing and tumbling. The third movement is the shortest of all, barely two minutes in duration. Marked Quick, quiet, it is like a zephyr, barely audible in manner. One could compare it, perhaps to a silken thread. The four players are asked to execute all this as fast and silently as possible and ending, if you will, in a puff of smoke. Movement number four is an explosive one and is marked, appropriately, Explosive. It is somewhat akin to a fughetto; the first statement is by the viola, taken up by the cello, second violin and then first violin. A section marked Slower, broader is opened by the cello and quickly echoed by the other three members. A demonic interlude leads directly to a new section distinguished by sharp, brusque figures taken up by the viola, then cello and finally the two violins. A restatement of the first section with the cello coming in first followed by the other three players leads quite suddenly and abruptly into the opening fughetto. One by one the four instruments echo the subject, extend it a bit and then bring it all to an explosive close.

String Quartet No. 5 was chosen by Chamber Music America for inclusion in its list of 101 Great Ensemble Works.

String Quartet No. 6 was written for the Cypress String Quartet and completed in January, 2005. The work comprises four movements. A composer’s fingerprint always remains the same no matter how different one work is from another, nor how many years separate each piece. The genre may range from orchestral pieces to piano concerti to operas. No matter. The fingerprint is there. In each of the four movements there are unexpected turns and resolutions. The opening of the first movement is dark, agitated, with no hint of the sudden lyrical subject that seems to appear without preparation. A slight development leads to an intense section, then back again to a quieter episode. The movement gains momentum with sharply accented passages and ends quite forcefully. The second movement is introduced with a series of quiet, calm chords. A subject in the cello is picked up by the other three instruments and the subsequent development dissolves into an episode of sharp accents. A somewhat whimsical subject appears, leading gradually to the elements of the quieter opening and then to the calm, sustained chords. The third movement, marked Quiet, eerie, is quite short. Sudden outbursts are followed by flecks of pizzicati. Quick legato passages whiz by in a unison pianissimo, rise suddenly to a fortissimo and end the movement on a triple pianissimo played pizzicato by all four players. The fourth movement contains a few surprises. The cello opens with a calm, unhurried statement and is joined by the first violin. An unexpected outburst, brings on a restatement of the cello line. Then, another outburst and another restatement, only this time a totally different element appears, a burlesca. All four instruments engage in a prolonged tongue-in-cheek exchange until the broad outlines of the opening statement appear, this time giving way to a somewhat faster call and response exchange. The final outlines of the drive to the end appears in the form of turbulent string passages that gather momentum, becoming motoric, more violent, and finally coming to the climax, observing the marking in the score “as fast as possible”.

The Cypress String Quartet

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