Benjamin Lees: String Quartets. Cypress String Quartet

All Things Strings

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. —Edith Eisler

And, in the same issue:

Beethoven Late Quartets, Vol. 1 ( The Cypress String Quartet begins its Beethoven cycle with a gorgeous reading of String Quartet in C# minor, Op. 131, and String Quartet in F major, Op. 135. —Greg Cahill