These three works by the American composer Benjamin Lees (b.1924) span more than 50 years and reveal a clear development in his musical language. While the First Quartet (1952) sounds very much like a work of the early 20th century, with its unexpected harmonic twists and turns underpinned by a clearly defined structure, by the fifth (2002) and sixth (2005) quartets, Lees has moved into more overtly atonal territory, and his forms are more spontaneous.
These later works were written for the Cypress Quartet, and it’s here that the players give the most convincing performances. Cellist Jennifer Kloetzel is impressively passionate in the Fifth Quartet’s opening cello solo, and violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone despatch its second movement’s intertwining solo lines with perfectly judged vibrato and a rich tone. The expansive, organ-like chords that launch the Sixth Quartet’s slow movement are beautifully pitched, and delivered with a carefully graded sound.
It’s a shame, however, that Lees sometimes seems to have a rather limited palette of gestures – menacing cello grumblings, scampering triplets and harsh, staccato interjections seem to crop up again and again. At times, the Cypress players seem to be trying a bit too hard with material that is essentially quite simple. Recorded sound is slightly boxed-in, sometimes making it difficult to get a realistic sense of the players’ tones.