BENJAMIN LEES – String Quartet No. 5

American Contemporary composer Benjamin Lees [1924–2010] wrote six string quartets – I am going to discuss his Fifth Quartet.

This work opens with a stunning solo cello passage, its rich tones evoking a Bach solo cello suite. Gradually it works itself into a frenzy and is joined by the ensemble. With all memories of Bach gone, the violin dominates with a rich melody as the cello still remains prominent. Intense, rhythmic thrusts punctuate the violin’s expression, leading into a strong, atonal section. Dense, harmonised flourishes produce a feeling of great intensity and drama with a lot of musical activity. Now an ostinato unfolds, made up of several powerful motifs. The cello returns with strong statements as the violin moves into a shrill register that lingers for some time, commencing a section of strong cello and violin dialogue – this is a fascinating soundscape, filled with atonal rhythmic thrusts and frantic violin expressions. The mood moves into a chaos, with all instruments providing dissonant interjections. A change in character emerges as a soft passage unfolds, with a further violin and cello dialogue until the two violins begin to evoke the sound of bees, ever-intensifying in their attack on the strings, and providing a dissonant duet. The end comes with another atonal flourish.

The second, slow movement features the sound of two lamenting, seemingly unrelated violins. A piercing violin, occasionally supported by resonant cello strokes, endures for an extended period until it drops in register and is merely shrill. A conversation develops between two violins and the cello, again in an atonal manner – this extended passage creates a most unusual emotional feeling. After a pause, the music becomes the sound of just two violins, featuring bird-like string sound effects, eventually leading to a very shrill and beautiful conclusion.

The next movement is quite brief and commences with virtuosic violin and cello statements, including many glissandos and strong rhythmic impetus. Again, the sound of bees is evoked as the violins storm their way to a climactic end.

The finale opens in a dynamic manner, with much quivering of bows and a resultant forward propulsion, featuring sweeping atonal melodic phrases. A short solo cello statement leads the music into an abstract, contemplative space which continues until the first violin soars above the ensemble with a sustained note. The cello and second violin are very active during this passage and a pizzicato viola adds to the texture. Glissandos abound, together with other string sound effects. The bees analogy is also useful here as a distinct rhythmic hum underpins the music. Eventually, another solo cello section emerges and the violins gently blend in with its musings. Nearing the end, the violins drift into a solemn duet – the cello returns and the sound becomes positively dynamic, with a racing tempo to an almost orchestral-like rhythmic conclusion.

Lees’ compositions seem to have been guided by his heart, not his musical environment of Modernity. He once said:

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.

The review CD, titled Lees, B.: String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 and 6, performed by the Cypress String Quartet on the Naxos label is available from Amazon US and UK. There is also a wonderful version of his String Quartet No. 2 performed by the Juilliard Quartet, available as a download although it is included on their recent set The Complete EPIC Recordings 1956-66, which is currently on my wishlist.

Both the Naxos and the Juilliard No. 2 are on Spotify and Nos. 2 & 6 are on YouTube.

Listenability: Unique-sounding modern quartets.


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