LEES: Piano Concerto No. 1. GOLD: Piano Concerto*.
Joseph Bloch, piano; Marisa Regules*, piano; National Orchestral Association/John Barnett, Leon Barzin*.
Pierian 0010 (F) (ADD) TT: 53:11

Tonal composers in the Forties and Fifties. Both Benjamin Lees and Ernest Gold have led peripatetic lives, at least as young men, and both settled in sunny Southern Cal. Gold, of course, is known for his movie scores, most famously, I should think, that for Exodus, whose title song became a monster pop hit in various arrangements. He was married for a time to Marni Nixon, the singing voice of many movie stars, and is the father of rocker and record producer Andrew Gold. He has, on occasion, produced concert works. Benjamin Lees scored, I think, two animated shorts, but has followed the more usual classical-composer route. People know him mainly for his concerti and other orchestral works, although he has built up a large and impressive body of work in just about every genre. Both men, however, stood outside the post-Webernian serial mainstream after World War II, their music showing more in common with pre-war Modernism. Both men also studied with George Antheil -- Gold after composing his concerto. It says much for Antheil as a teacher that neither Lees nor Gold sounds like him or like one another.

Gold's piano concerto brims full of references to composers popular in the Forties, when the piece appeared -- a little Khachaturian, Prokofiev, even Rachmaninoff and Gershwin. It's an attractive, though admittedly minor work. The orchestral and piano writing seem expert, and the themes themselves glitter and sing. I balk at the architecture, which teeters a bit, although not quite as loose as some reviewers have made out. Some have called it, without meaning a compliment, "movie music," but Gold writes tighter than the flow of movie narrative allows. Apparently, people hear a Rachmaninoff swoop or swell and immediately think "movie music," without considering the current context and apparently without actually listening to movie music. I do object to Gold's having to stop and start up again at key points -- notably at the end of the exposition and the beginning of the development in the first movement -- and to an unconvincing first-movement ending. Throughout, Gold tends to rely too heavily on sequence (restating the same idea on, usually, a higher pitch and linking these together in long chains), rather than creating transformational development within a movement. Still, ideas from earlier movements turn up disguised in later movements, and the attractiveness of Gold's music overcomes most of the problems. The slow movement, for example, is gorgeous, although, like the first it comes to an abrupt, unsatisfying end. The finale, the weakest of the three mainly due to an unoriginal appropriation of Gershwin's language, nevertheless contains some fun things, including a mock fugato.

Still, the Lees stands on an altogether higher level of accomplishment -- not a surprise, since he's turned out to become one of the outstanding concerto writers of the past 75 years. Lee's idiom is spikier than Gold's, showing much in common with American Romantic neo-classicists -- an apparent contradiction, but not really -- like Piston, Diamond, and Mennin. Lees depends less than Gold on previous gestures, having worked out his own vocabulary and musical images almost from the beginning of his career. Lees also comes up with memorable, if not hummable, themes that also generate variants of themselves. This gives almost everything he writes great cohesion, and the listener seldom gets lost. Lees's instinct for the dramatic, strong contrast of expression, coupled with a flair for rhythms that get the body moving, give his works strong forward impulse. The piano concerto essentially sweeps you up by the back of your collar and doesn't relax its grip until the end. There's none of the stopping and starting again we find in the Gold. Lees masters symphonic rhetoric and argument. The first movement, a toccata, drives to the end, with a slight rhetorical relaxation for a lyrical theme. The second movement, slower but no less intense, ignores the conventional. It's an odd movement -- much of it kind of a mix-meter march or procession as well as the more familiar Romantic "song" -- which ramps up and falls back, at times threatening to break out into yet another toccata. This last impression may stem from Lees's penchant for subdividing rhythm and cross-accent. The toccata figures bound out in the finale. The emotional landscape of the concerto's a bit unusual as well. It's a busy terrain, with marching figures, hints of the Baroque, brief outpourings of dramatic singing, and Bartókian energy. But a psychic restlessness permeates everything. Listening to this work, I finally understood why certain critics allied Lees's music with surrealist painting, even though Lees's music is normally far more energetic than most Surrealism. It's hard, after all, to write a surrealist musical work of any length. How would such a thing hang together? Indeed, most Surrealist music consists of short sections, like Lord Berners's Triumph of Neptune. Lees, however, grabs onto the emotional disconcert of Surrealism -- particularly something like Man Ray's gigantic flying lips in L'Heure de l'Observatoire -- and then writes tight.

The performers in the Gold do okay. They reach a standard familiar to those of us who have collected infrequently-performed music. However, Lees gets much more from the orchestra and especially conductor John Barnett and pianist Joseph Bloch. Bloch, a name new to me as a pianist (though not as a writer), plays heroically, with fire, and yet clearly understands the structure of the work. As David Letterman says, hold on to your wigs and keys.

The sound seems to derive from radio air checks, with attendant boxiness. The Gold comes from acetates made in 1945, the Lees from quarter-track tape from 1963. Pierian applied CEDAR and Waves noise reduction to the Gold. Nevertheless, you can't get these works otherwise. The Pierian Recording Society has in a very short time created one of the most interesting and important catalogues around, including, of course, CDs of Debussy, Scriabin, Ravel, and Granados playing their own music. We classical collectors complain about the old-line "majors" releasing the same old stuff. Pierian has explored odd corners of repertory and performance with taste and intelligence.

S.G.S. (January 2005)