Noël Lee (b. Nanjing, China, December 25, 1924) is an American classical pianist and composer living in Paris, France.
He studied music in Lafayette, Indiana, then attended Harvard University, studying with Walter Piston, Irving Fine, and Tillman Merritt. Following World War II, he traveled to Paris where he studied music with Nadia Boulanger and was a friend of Douglas Allanbrook. He has composed orchestral, chamber, piano, vocal, and film music. In addition, he has completed several unfinished piano works by Franz Schubert, and composed cadenzas for piano concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.
As a pianist, he has toured on six continents and recorded 198 LPs and CDs since 1955, particularly of Schubert (including the complete sonatas), Debussy, Ravel, Charles Ives, Bartók, Stravinsky, Aaron Copland and Elliott Carter. Thirteen of these have received a Grand Prix du Disque.
All the works on this recording are by Noël Lee himself. His style ranges from somewhat post-Romantic to avant-garde, but he rarely strays far from recognizable tonality. He does make use of some non-standard techniques involving playing the strings of the piano in various ways other than with the keyboard.
The first set of Etudes dates from 1961, the second set from 1967. The titles refer to the compositional matter at hand (high notes, sonorous effects) or its origin (chords from Charles Ives), less frequently to the technical difficulties involved in the performance (legato playing, velocity).
I. On a rhythm from Béla Bartok (Presto agitato). A study in endurance. A rhythmic pattern taken from the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (with the hotline displaced) is used as an ostinato, discreet at first (pp), aggressive later (ff). The leaps, the stretches, the dynamics increase, the writing becomes more complex, more intense.
II. With varied sonorities (Lento motto). The sonorities in question are obtained by either damping the string directly with one hand while playing the same note on the keyboard with the other, or by plucking the string with the finger nail. The music rack must be displaced so that the performer has access to the strings. These must be identified, perhaps with discreet chalk marks: inside the piano, all strings resemble each other!
III. For high notes (Vivacissimo). This study uses a series of 28 rapid notes from which emerges a rhythmic series of seven different durations (4+2+5+1+3+6+7). The ear detects only a pianissimo rattle and clinding of high-pitched sounds which soon become a forte clatter and clash.
IV. For low notes (Moderato e maestoso). An apparently improvisatory type of «ramble», with no fixed row, but generally with each bar containing the twelve notes; with no regular pulsation, but with continual flux and alternation between binary and ternary rhythms. The low notes attempt to be thematic but never really succeed until the coda, when the upper moving patterns suddenly cease.
V. For legato playing (Con moto). The principal difficulty here is to keep the lyric, even romantic character during the most intense and complicated passages. The twelve note row is divided into three tetrachords: all the horizontal movement, the ostinato figurations, and the vertical aggregates are derived from these tetrachords, which may explain a certain «tonal flavor».
VI. Using sonorous effects (Lento). This piece develops scene of the sounds heard in the second etude, but here the «effects» assume their own existence rather than echo or anticipate the «normal» sounds produced at the keyboard. In addition to plucked and damped strings, there are (1) plucking with the flesh instead of with the nail similar to the difference between sul tasto and sul ponticello on bowed instruments; (2) trilling by sliding the nail across the strings of two adjacent notes; (3) sliding across several strings to make a glissando; (4) tapping the string lightly with the edge of the nail or the end of the finger. Another effect, obtained at the keyboard this time, is the creation of harmonics. Violence, sometimes abrupt, frequently alternates with tenderness.
VII. For velocity (Prestissimo). The impossible metronome making of 152 = four 16th-notes indicates the problem involved a kind of hysterical perpetual motion at break-neck speed. Two six-notes scales form the row, which is presented in all 48 versions and transpositions, using a sort of Bach Two-part Invention texture. At certain points the frenzy seems to get stuck and turns around on itself, creating a kind of «platform» before breaking away again in frantic chase.
VIII. On chords from Charles Ives (Moderato). It is dangerous to remove from their context the extraordinary chords found at the beginning of the fourth movement of the First Piano Sonata, chords which become more abstract because of the absence of any tempo indication. This etude is based on these chords (bar 1, 4,5 and bars 47 through 51 are direct quotes from Ives) but does not want to «explain» them, or weaken their audacity. Let us assume therefore that this is simply a study in major sevenths, combined with a study in playing chords simultaneously at three different places on the keyboard.
The four connected section of Chroniques (1977)─Andante sostenuto, Allegro sempre con fuoco, Scherzoso, Adagio motto─could be labeled «Prelude, Fugue, .Scherzo, Chaconne». The work is a blast of intensity, violence, insistence, almost expressionistic frenzy, followed by hesitation, playfulness, lyricism, tranquility, nostalgia. The rigorous dodecaphonism sometimes hides, often disguises itself. This piece also uses sounds produced directly on the strings inside the instrument, as in Etudes II and VI.
This short three-movement work (Allegretto ; song Motto lento ed espressivo ; Rondo Presto) dating from 1959 follows the path of most Sonatines: it is an example of concentration rather than of expansion. If drama there is, it is not taken too seriously.
SONATA IN ONE MOVEMENT
A certain Americain flavor is evident in this Sonata (1955) with its long, immobile ostinato sections and the (somewhat) Stravinskyan harmonies. «Obstinate» is perhaps a good term for describing the willful character of the work.
The first Lento presents the material: the interval of an 11th, a slow theme a conjunct intervals, and a second theme slightly more disjunct. At the beginning of the Moderato the music seems glued to an F-sharp pedal for too long a time; finally the pent-up energy spills over and the harmony begins to move. The second theme follows, the development with at first a fugato, then an intense, insistent superposition of all the themes. At the climax of this, the initial declamation suddenly returns, Lento, the insistence breaks, the music gradually returns to silence.
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Other recordings by Noël Lee: