LEES, B.: String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 and 6 (Cypress String 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.