Benjamin Lees Piano Music, 1947 – 2005
Toccata, Six Ornamental Etudes, Three Preludes, Sonata Breve, Odyssey
Benjamin Lees’ piano music can be muscular and powerful, sweet and tender, or lilting and playful. Miriam Conti handily tackles each and every possible mood in the five pieces on this disc. The opening Toccata is brash and forceful with a surprising loss of energy towards the end. The Six Ornamental Etudes are charming pieces that, while not as showy as other etude collections, still balance the fine line of chop-builder vs. showpiece. The Three Preludes follow a traditional fast-slow-fast structure and a large-scale narrative shape that makes the set feel more like a single multi-movement work than a collection of separate pieces. Sonata Breve packs an awful lot of music and technique into a work containing the word breve in the title. Each of the three Odyssey’s are mature, broad, and expansive works that showcase Miriam Conti’s talents quite well (the last two of the three were composed for her, after all).
Lees’ pitch language has that chromatic-yet-tonally-grounded sense of Prokofiev mixed with just a touch of the American Populists from the mid-20th century. In many ways, I think Lees’ music is what Elliott Carter’s music would sound like had he not gone all wonky in the 50s (disclaimer: I love wonky Carter). Each work has a strong rhythmic and narrative profile, and thunderous moments are well balanced by tender contemplation. Miriam Conti’s technique and musicality are mercurial and able to match the demands of each piece without question.