American composer Benjamin Lees is a known quantity among many reputable virtuosi, in music education as a pedagogue and among truly expert aficionados of twentieth century classical music. Lees has never followed any discernable trends, soaks in influences until they are barely visible, and has forged a personal style that is distinctive and unique. This goal every composer strikes out to achieve, to attain it so early in one's career as Lees did, and to produce music of consistent quality artistically and technically as Lees remains highly admirable. However, such a career path can also get you ignored; it is not sufficient, it seems, to find a workable personal style, stick to it, and grow within it at a pace where one is comfortable. At this stage of Lees' career -- late as it is -- it is most useful to have a career summary of some kind. Toccata Classics' Benjamin Lees: Piano Music 1947-2005 handsomely fits the bill; a survey of what has been a 60-year odyssey in the realm of the keyboard, played by a handpicked expert interpreter of Lees' piano output, Mirian Conti. Conti was introduced to Lees through his fellow composer David Diamond in the early '80s, and the two most recent compositions featured in this program were specifically composed for her.
A thoroughly superficial exegesis of the elements of Lees' style would include some reference to Prokofiev and Bartók, moreover there's a vague resemblance to various things of Copland, early Leonard Bernstein, and late Griffes with some correspondence to Lees' own favorite teacher, George Antheil, though most strongly in a work written just before the two first met, the Toccata (1947). In the final analysis, Lees sounds like none else; in earlier works he utilizes a romantic trajectory of line that proves an easy course to follow, even as his harmonic language tends to be tough -- though never coarse -- and neither tonal nor exclusively atonal. In later works, such as the first two pieces entitled Odyssey, the romantic line of argument gives way to a more segmented, cinematic approach to form; it does not change Lees' musical thinking so much as it provides an alternative method of telling the story. In the last work, Odyssey No. 3 (2005), Lees combines both approaches; in what might be the best, Sonata Breve (1957), Lees spins a seamless 13-minute structure out of a kind of a broken, two-part figure that is compelling, well-varied, smart, communicative, and exciting.
"I am a visceral rather than intellectual composer," Lees states in his notes for his disc, and that appears to be so, although his music is highly intellectually satisfying. It is still for relatively advanced tastes, as Lees' harmonic palette is tilted more toward the dark side than the light. However, those accustomed to Bartók should have no trouble grasping Lees, and his piano music does continue the "Great American" line of keyboard thinking that extends from long-departed figures such as Antheil, Griffes, and Copland. For those with an interest in this area, Toccata Classics' Benjamin Lees: Piano Music 1947-2005 will prove essential. Conti's performance is dedicated and authoritative, and Toccata Classics' recording is stunningly realistic.