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Zach Carstensen
The Gathering Note, June 2010

Benjamin Lees’ death makes a recent release of three of his string quartets timely. The Cypress String Quartet recorded Lees’ First, Fifth and Sixth String Quartets for Naxos’ American Classics series. Lees wrote the fifth quartet in 1952, while the fifth and sixth hail from early in the 21st Century. While Lees is likely to be remembered (if at all) for two orchestral works—his symphony Memorial Candles and Violin Concerto—his string quartets, and this release, shouldn’t be discounted. Lees, who described himself as a visceral composer, demonstrates his visceral tendencies in each of the three quartets. Lees happily rejected the atonal fashions of the middle part of last century and later snubbed the minimalist pulse which closed the century. The decision served him well. These quartets are distinctive, challenging, and yes, even approachable pieces for string quartet.

Glyn Pursglove
MusicWeb International, June 2010

Lees was born in China, brought up and educated in California. From 1949 to 1954 he studied with George Antheil who acted as a largely unpaid tutor out of respect for Lees’ abilities. From the mid-1950s onwards his works began to be performed quite widely and by distinguished performers, without his ever perhaps becoming a ‘major’ figure in American music. A Guggenheim fellowship enabled him to spend much of his time in Europe in the second half of the 1950s. Never a composer who aspired to be thought of as especially ‘American’, these European years were important for Lees, years when he could evolve his own voice without direct involvement in the style wars of American music. Prokofiev, Bartók and Shostakovich became important exemplars for Lees.

In a 1987 interview with Bruce Duffie, when the interviewer enquired “in a great number of your own works, you have used the traditional approach—Slonimsky calls it accessibility—which makes your music attractive to conductors and soloists. Is this something you have consciously built in to your pieces, or is this an outgrowth of what you wanted to write innately?”, Lees answered as follows: “The accessibility, I suppose, comes from something that George Antheil told me when I was studying with him. He put it very succinctly, and it was one of those catch words which stuck in the memory. He said, “Music must have a face. A theme must have a face, something which is really recognizable, both to you and to the listener.” And again, it matters not what style a person writes in, but it cannot simply be amorphous. It cannot be really formless and it cannot be merely notes spinning”. Certainly Lees’ music never seeks to exclude listeners, or to make their life needlessly difficult by the flaunting of the composer’s ‘cleverness’. Nor, on the other hand, does he write down, or write to please some lowest common denominator of taste and demand. Like any substantial composer, Lees seems always to have been true to himself, to have been serenely unworried, so far as one can judge, by matters of mere fashion or popularity. Honesty, indeed, has always struck me as one of the hallmarks of his work, a directness of communication. It seems appropriate that he should once have said that “there are two kinds of composers. One is the intellectual and the other is visceral. I fall into the latter category. If my stomach doesn’t tighten at an idea, then it’s not the right idea.”

Most attention—and perhaps rightly so—has been paid to Lees’ orchestral works, not least his five symphonies. But, as this disc demonstrates well and clearly, he also had plenty to say in that other ‘classical’ form—the string quartet, of which he wrote six. This rewarding Naxos disc contains three of them in fine performances by the Cypress Quartet, for whom the fifth and the sixth were written.

The Cypress Quartet begin their programme with Lees’ first quartet, written in 1952, and premiered the following year in Los Angles—and in 1954 played in New York by the Budapest Quartet. In three movements (moderato-adagietto-allegro vivo) it has an appealing grace, at its most obvious in the adagietto, a lovely moment that exudes a simplicity—created by considerable art—and only slightly troubled lyricism that has a more or less pastoral quality. In the movement that precedes it some crisp and dynamic writing alternates with more reflective passages. In the last movement—essentially a rondo—the writing is engagingly animated, seeming to speak out of a mind full of ideas and eagerness. A quartet well worth hearing—especially when so well performed—but not yet fully embodying the composer’s mature voice.

The two ‘late’ quartets give us that voice in abundance. The four movements of the fifth quartet (measured—arioso—quick, quiet—explosive) form a musical argument of considerable density, marked both by striking moments and a sense of larger design. The writing for cello at the opening of the first movement, and the ensuing dialogue with the other instruments is one of those striking moments. Another comes in the second movement when an aggressive intervention by the cello disrupts the meditative conversation of the two violins. The more one listens, the more such moments one discovers. The third movement is a miniature delight (it lasts less than two minutes), music of evanescent beauty. The contrast with the fourth movement could hardly be more marked—full as it is of musical contention and turbulence, of assertion and annoyed counter-assertion, a conflict not so much resolved as serving to fuel a still angry ending.

Where the sixth quartet is concerned the composer’s markings for its four movements say most of what the mere reviewer might want to say about the work: “measured, dolorous—calm, steady—quiet, eerie—unhurried”. And they are! The use pizzicato passages is a particular feature of this quartet—notably at moments in the first and third movements. Without any wilful oddity or eccentricity, Lees creates some fresh and interesting effects at more than one point in this quartet. To say that one can ‘hear’ his respect for Bartók and Shostakovich is not, repeat not, to belittle his work as derivative. It is merely to recognise that, like 99% (or more!) of all artists, Lees was not a toweringly inventive figure. He was a highly accomplished craftsman who had listened to, and learned from, the music of the past and the present; a composer who refused to be merely modish or to chase the fashionable at the cost of fidelity to what he felt to be right for him.

It is, I hope, timely to celebrate Lees’ achievement, immediately after his death. Not a composer of spectacular fame, he worked with a seriousness and truth that some more famous fall short of.

Robert R. Reilly, December 2009

I don’t want to bid the year farewell without recognizing another enterprising “American Classics” CD from Naxos. This one contains String Quartets Nos. 1, 5, and 6 by Benjamin Lees (b. 1924), rivetingly performed by the Cypress String Quartet (8.559628). I do not know much about this man’s music, which is why I am so deeply grateful to Naxos for the introduction. Now I want to know more. These are extraordinary, deeply thoughtful, intellectually intriguing, intense chamber works that so fit their medium that they seem quintessential. I am not at all surprised that Chamber Music America chose Quartet No. 5 as one of the 101 Great Ensemble Works. If you have made it past the Britten and Shostakovich quartets, here are works that will fully engage you. Lees does not offer sensuous surface appeal, but the depth is there. The latter two quartets were written in the 21st century. Obviously, Lees is working full steam ahead at the top of his game.

Phil Muse, December 2009

American composer Benjamin Lees (b.1924) has a recognizable, highly personal style, notable for his formal clarity, his sonorities, his love of sharp contrasts and conflicts, his unexpected lyricism, and the integrity of his writing. As one can tell from a glance at the above dates, Lees has had an unusually long mature period, continuing to write music of remarkable vitality at an age when most composers have experienced a drying of creative juices, diminished stamina, or both.

Quartet No. 1 made its appearance more than fifty years ago, but it already showed Lees’ salient characteristics, as stated above. A very active give and take between two clearly defined themes in the opening movement is followed by a particularly beautiful theme, first stated by the cello and taken up by the other instruments, in the slow movement, an Adagietto, (Winthrop Sargent, writing in the New Yorker, found it to be “one of the most distinguished things of its sort by a contemporary composer that I have heard in some time.”) And so it is, a striking exercise in lyricism at a time when many composers seemed to regard the writing of a melody as something déclassé. The finale, Allegro vivo, is basically a rondo but also involves the statement and development of no fewer than three subjects before a re-statement of the first, and a spirited coda, bring matters to an dramatic, and abrupt, close.

That combination of rondo and sonata form in the finale, together with the fact that I had recently reviewed, with great pleasure, the first installment in a series of Beethoven’s Last Quartets by the Cypress String Quartet, who coincidentally commissioned, and here perform on this disc, Lee’s Quartets 5 and 6, seemed to click on a light for me. I don’t mean to imply the direct influence of Beethoven on Benjamin Lees, but only that the latter-day composer possesses a Beethoven-like sense of clarity and formal integrity, no matter how involved his developments may be. Lees himself admits a taste in painting for the Cubists and Surrealists (significantly, genres in which a strong element of formal design trumps other features—a liquefied pocket watch, a dead pelican—that may be strange or unfamiliar taken by themselves). In Quartet No. 5, written on a commission by the Cypresses for their Call and Response series, he was asked to respond to elements in quartets by Shostakovich and Britten. Lees confesses a liking for the element of surprise in the former, in whose music humor and lacerated nerves can exist in uncomfortably close proximity. And he admires Britten for his refined sense of harmony, his penchant for throwing the listener off-balance by sliding away from a full-blown tonal scale into a harmonic haze.

Although Lees pays his respects to the stated traits in both composers, he is still very much his own man in Quartet 5. A muscular development of three contrasting themes in the opening movement is followed by a slow movment marked “Calm, steady,” in which we have an intimate dialog between the two violins at the top of their registers interrupted briefly by a menacing outburst from the cello, and then resumed (“like two swallows turning over and over in air, arcing and tumbling,” as the Cypress Quartet describe it in their delightful program notes). The scherzo, only 1:46 in duration, requires the quartet members to play as quickly and quietly as possible, ending as softly as a puff of smoke. (They modestly omit to mention how difficult this all is to execute. Again, Shostakovich!) The finale is explosive and sharply accented as all four instruments take turns tussling with the main subject.

Quartet 6, commissioned by the Cypress Quartet in 2005, again reveals the composer’s distinctive “fingerprint.” The opening movement, marked “Measured, dolorous,” is also darkly agitated, with a lyrical subject that seems to emerge without preparation (Lees is never one to waste time making a statement). Quieter episodes alternate with more intense ones, and the movement ends forcefully. The slow movement is marked “Calm, steady,” and so it is at its very opening. Then the development of a subject first stated by the cello is interrupted by a sharply accented episode, a whimsical second subject, and then the calm, sustained chords of the opening. The scherzo, marked “Quiet, eerie,” features both pianissimo and fortissimo passages, ending in a triple pianissimo played pizzicato by all four players—all this in only 2:30! The finale is marked “Unhurried,” but again that applies only to its opening and gives no indication of the succession of surprises Lees has in store for us: a sudden outburst, a burlesca, fast call and response exchanges between players, and a gathering momentum leading to a final climax, to be taken “as fast as possible.”

Mark L Lehman
American Record Guide, November 2009

David Kettle
The Strad, November 2009

Cellist Jennifer Kloetzel is impressively passionate in the Fifth Quartet’s opening cello solo, and violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone dispatch its second movement’s intertwining solo lines with perfectly judged vibrato and a rich tone. The expansive, organ-like chords that launch the Sixth Quartet’s slow movement are beautifully pitched across the four players, and delivered with a carefully graded sound.

Edith Eisler
Strings Magazine, October 2009

Commissioning a new work inspired by older works is an unusual way to champion living composers, but that’s how the Cypress String Quartet’s critically acclaimed Call & Response program works. The players—Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Finer, viola; and Jennifer Kloetzel, cello—select two standard repertoire quartets and “call” on composers to “respond” by writing a new one. Benjamin Lees’ (b. 1924) Fifth Quartet “responded” to Britten and Shostakovich and their influence is clear, especially Shostakovich’s, whose mood swings and contrasts also are characteristic of Lees’ own style.

It is one of three Lees quartets—Nos. 1, 5, and 6—included here.

Formed in 1996 and based in San Francisco, the Cypress Quartet, for whom Lees later wrote his Sixth Quartet, is distinguished by its lovely, transparent, homogeneous tone, flawless balance, and intonation, and by the players’ brilliant individual and ensemble technique. They handle the music’s sound effects, changing tempi and dynamics, rugged rhythms and singing lines with ease and authority; in the Fifth and Sixth Quartets, the scherzos are fleet and ghostly, the slow movements beautiful and expressive.

David Olds
The WholeNote, September 2009

Thanks to Naxos I may remember 2009 as “the summer of the string quartet”, with new releases by several intriguing and lesser known 20th century composers. The Cypress Quartet’s recording of Benjamin Lees’ String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 and 6 is a great introduction to the chamber music of a composer better known for Grammy nominated larger works, Symphony No. 5 and the Violin Concerto. The quartets date from 1952, 2002 and 2005 and give a good idea of where Lees was coming from—he was 28 when the first quartet was written—and where is now. Interestingly, the fifth was written for the Cypress Quartet’s “Call and Response” series, where a composer is asked to create a work influenced by two standard quartet pieces which would be performed alongside the premiere, in this case quartets of Shostakovich and Britten. The lyricism of this work is juxtaposed with the more abrasive Sixth Quartet.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2009
Born in 1924, Benjamin Lees is one of the father figures in today’s North American music, his series of six quartets spread through his career, his Sixth completed four years ago at the age of eighty-one. The first dates from 1952, not long after completing a formal education interrupted by service in the Second World War. Its mood immediately states an individual voice that leans towards mid-European atonal music of the time, but in his case atonality was used to create a variant on melodic invention. Fashioned in three movements, of almost equal length, the central gently flowing Adagietto comes between movements of much animation and avoids any hint of the anger fresh from thoughts of the dreadful conflict. We move on forty-nine years to the Fifth which came in response to a request from the present performers, the Cypress String Quartet. They wanted a work to perform that would respond to the two surrounding composers, Shostakovich and Britten. I find the four movements that resulted as quintessential Lees, with little influence from either composer, though I like it that way. Maybe there is just a modicum of Russia in the final movement marked ‘Explosive’, but it is of passing significance. He writes intuitively for the instruments especially when they are in dialogue. Three years later the Cypress asked for another work resulting in the Sixth, again in four movements, the third—as in the previous work—being very short. The change comes in a finale marked, ‘Unhurried’, where for the first time we hear sadness in his music, and it appears to come from within. The playing is obviously in sympathy with a composer they must know very well, the American-based ensemble having a glittering array of famous instruments on which to produce beautiful sounds. The engineering in these world premiere recordings is excellent.

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