BENJAMIN LEES: Toccata; 6 Ornamental Etudes; 3 Preludes; Sonata Breve; Odyssey – Mirian Conti, piano – Toccata Classics

by | Dec 29, 2008 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BENJAMIN LEES: Toccata; 6 Ornamental Etudes; 3 Preludes; Sonata Breve; Odyssey – Mirian Conti, piano – Toccata Classics TOCC 0069, 71:39 **** [Distr. By Allegro]:

Producer Martin Anderson’s new Toccata Classics label has been turning out a host of discs with music only a company like Naxos may or may not eventually tackle, and one has to be glad for his efforts, though the discs I have heard so far prove a mixed bag. That’s not a slight; one could expect little else with so eclectic a collection, and of course not everyone can be expected to like the music of Benjamin Lees either. My personal jury is still out; there is certainly much to be admired in Lee’s difficult and unrelentingly demanding vocabulary, one created with a persistence that rarely leaves the listener a minute of repose, even in its more relaxed moments. This piano music, written from 1947-2005, shows the essence of the composer. The man will not be ignored, allows no sense of anything but absolute attention, and expects you to take him as seriously as he takes himself.

Lees, born in China in 1924, feels that often people tend to hear some sort of Oriental influence in his music that he suggests is simply not there. He insists that he is as American as anyone, and proves it by his adherence to the Southern California School where he studied with the likes of Ingolf Dahl and Halsey Stevens. He later hit the east coast with a series of important teaching positions, including Peabody, Queens College, Manhattan School of Music, and Juilliard. Commissions have always followed readily, and few composers can claim to have been so well-served by the public and fellow artists as he.

The music is tough to categorize, though Shostakovich finds his way in some of the melodic passages with a sharp-etched Prokofievian rhythmic impetus underlying much of what he does. I also hear a lot of Bartok in the open fifths in the bass line and the folk-like elements of his shorter melodies reminiscent of Mikrokosmos. Of all the music here, the Six Ornamental Etudes strike me as some of the most ingratiating and accessible; other pieces, like the Three Preludes may prove tough going in their rugged and strangely forbidding improvisatory qualities. The Sonata Breve is another piece of uncompromising technical qualities that don’t always translate into easy listening. The three Odyssey pieces are like miniature modernist tone paintings, each concerned with a different surreal element that attempt to tell stories that are perhaps, in the end, not really comprehensible. The opening Toccata is an easily digested piece that does little to prepare us for the complexities to follow.

Pianist Conti is all over the music, providing us with detailed notes as well in a fine production package, with sound that is recorded at a high level but yet quite vibrant. Lees is not for everyone, and I would definitely suggesting sampling before you purchase. Those who like him will find little to complain about here.

— Steven Ritter  

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