5.0 out of 5 stars Two Great American Violin Concertos in Essential Performances, June 17, 2008
By J Scott Morrison (Middlebury VT, USA)
The violin concertos of Ernest Bloch and Benjamin Lees are among the greatest such concertos ever written by an American composer. Each is a mid-20th-century romantic gem and, more's the pity, each is almost never played.....
Benjamin Lees (b. 1924, and still composing) is one of our most consistently inspired composers. His Violin Concerto is even less well-known than Bloch's but it is equally substantial and musically satisfying. It was written in 1958 and premiered by Henryk Szeryng and the Boston Symphony under Erich Leinsdorf in 1963. A recording, which I have not heard, was later made by violinist Ruggiero Ricci. As far as I know there are no other recordings of the work. Oliveira has championed the work and it is to our great benefit that he has chosen to record it. It opens, unusually, with two slow movements, both songful but with more than a hint of brooding, even menace. In them Lees' spare melodies and harmonies tell of inner struggle, diffidence and yearning. In the third movement, Allegro giusto, any restraint or hesitation felt in the preceding movements melts away and, in the composer's words at the time of its premiere, 'all hell breaks loose.' Cross rhythms and devilishly tricky metrical irregularities give it a celebratory, even febrile air. The orchestral contribution to the whole is extraordinarily complicated and both Williams and the Ukraine orchestra come in for extra praise here. Oliveira plays with such mastery as almost to make the work seem simple but the work is clearly one of incredible virtuosity. Hats off to all concerned -- Oliveira, Williams, the Ukraine orchestra and, most of all, to Benjamin Lees!
By Richard Freed
Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2
What a splendid idea it was to have Elmar Oliveira record these two concertos together! The Bloch is simply one of the great violin concertos; among those of the last century it has few peers. It is a compellingly dramatic piece, in which many find images of Old Testament prophets, though Bloch himself spoke of a Native American influence. Musicians have always had good things to say about it, but it is very seldom performed. Joseph Szigeti introduced it in 1938 and made the first recording; Yehudi Menuhin recorded it 25 years later and played it till the end of his career. There have been three or four quite good recordings on CD, but the superstars tend to ignore the work.
One of the Bloch Concerto’s "few peers" is Benjamin Lees’s stunning, substantial and even more neglected concerto. Henryk Szeryng introduced it in 1963; its latter-day champions have been Ruggiero Ricci and Oliveira, both of them adventurous explorers beyond the so-called standard repertory. Ricci’s fine recording of the Lees Concerto on a Turnabout LP did the work proud, but both concertos gain in several respects on this Artek release. Oliveira’s playing is as winning for its depth as for its sheer brilliance; the orchestra, which has a lot to say in both works, is solidly in the picture, with a real sense of give-and-take; the spacious, unfussy sound is a definite asset and, in a curious but undeniable sense, this inspired pairing makes both concertos appear stronger, simply by showing themselves worthy of each other.
The documentation, poorly edited, tells us little, but these powerful and penetrating performances tell us all we really need to know about this terrific music.