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CD Review

National Orchestra Association

Volume One

  • Benjamin Lees: Piano Concerto #1 [26:06]
  • Ernest Gold: Piano Concerto * [27:05]
Joseph Bloch, piano
* Marisa Regules, piano
National Orchestral Association/John Barnett (Live 1963 performance)
* National Orchestral Association/Leon Barzin (Live 1945 performance)
Pierian Recording Society 0010 Issued 2003
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Benjamin Lees, now 81 years of age, is perhaps best known for his 4th Symphony "Memorial Candles," which premièred in 1985 (also reviewed by Steve Schwartz and by Raymond Tuttle.)

Lees' first piano concerto, one of his earliest works, dates from 1955 when it was performed in Vienna, where Lees was enjoying a Guggenheim fellowship and where he met the conductor Charles Adler, a friend of George Antheil with whom Lees had studied. The pianist was Alexander Jenner. This was the first work by an American ever to première in Vienna and the event was covered by Time Magazine. The pianist Joseph Bloch played the work two years later in both Indianapolis and Helsinki, and in New York in 1964.

Stylistically, Lees' concerto shares the same sound world as some of Prokofieff's works. From me, that is a strong endorsement, as I love the music of both composers, combining as they do strong rhythmic and melodic elements. And, as there has not exactly been an excess of writing in the piano concerto form during the past half century, this recording is very welcome.

In the usual three movements-of roughly equal length, with the opening movement only about a minute longer then the others-Lees gives us bravura piano writing, a very lyrical and melodic "adagio maestoso," and a finale which, after opening with a clarinet solo, is loud, fierce, driving, pounding and syncopated-also perky. He has some strong even beats also.

You might not want to play this late in the evening. Some new concert performances are long overdue.

The recorded sound in the Lees shows its age, but is not bad. It is a clean sound, without hiss or anything like that; you hear only the music.

Ernest Gold's concerto is quite different from Lees' and the sound is audibly two decades older, which puts it in the historic realm. It sounds like an old film soundtrack, in fact, and much of the music itself has a Hollywood sound to it. As it happens, Gold, who also studied with Antheil, wrote the scores for several major films, including Exodus, On the Beach, Judgment at Nuremburg and Ship of Fools.

Bright, lively and upbeat, dramatically full-blown rather than subtle, but with some mellow and lyrical writing, sometimes jazzy, Gold's concerto sometimes reminds me of Gershwin. The first movement contains a second theme which the recording annotator says "might be best described as sumptuous." The second movement concludes with a woodwind solo beautiful enough to have evoked applause at this point from the recorded audience.

The finale is pleasurably vigorous.

The Pierian Recording Society is a small not-for-profit label devoted to "the preservation of historic performances and obscure repertoire." I think they should qualify that last adjective with "undeservedly."

Copyright © 2006, R. James Tobin