Picks of the Year: 2009

by Walter Simmons



This year, with only a bit of stretching, I was able to find four CDs that met my criteria of “neglected masterpieces,” rendered in brilliant performances. John Corigliano is not a particular favorite of mine, but he is unquestionably a highly gifted composer. Although much of his music depends on gimmickry of one form or another, A Dylan Thomas Trilogy (reviewed in 32:5) is one major work that appears to reflect some of his deepest and most introspective creative thinking. Its composition occupied Corigliano on and off for nearly forty years, from a setting of Fern Hill written when he was 23, with additional segments added periodically during the years that followed, until he finally arrived at a satisfactory completion during the late 1990s, when he was about 60. Corigliano has always felt a strong kinship with the Welsh poet, and so the trilogy represents something of a spiritual/poetic autobiography. Not only are its individual sections quite moving in their own rights, but the multiple perspectives resulting from their origins at different times in the composer’s life add a fascinating additional dimension. 

Ordinarily I would refrain from including the Giannini CD (reviewed in 32:6) on my Want List because a) I wrote the program notes, and b) I do not consider one of the works to be quite at the level of “masterpiece.” However, I decided to make an exception in this case. For one thing, although the Piano Concerto is an ambitious work of more than 40 minutes duration, and although it is a notable curiosity, having enjoyed a triumphant premiere at the hands of Rosalyn Tureck in 1937, with no record of any subsequent performances, and although it is performed here with fervent commitment, brilliant virtuosity, and exquisite sensitivity by the extraordinary Rumanian-American pianist Gabriela Imreh, the work—like much of Giannini’s music from the 1930s—is quite conventional in its adoption of a middle-European late-romantic musical language, and over-laden with excessive repetition. So why am I making this exception? Because most of the reviews that have appeared since its release have been far more generous in their assessments of the concerto than I, while dispensing with the symphony in a few words indicating that it’s good too. But Giannini’s Symphony No. 4, a fruit of the composer’s maturity, by which time he had established an identifiable creative voice of his own, is worth far more than such perfunctory acknowledgment. It is one of the great neo-romantic symphonies of the 1950s—the decade during which (contrary to the usual textbook overview) the American symphony reached its fullest and most generous fruition—worthy of standing alongside the major works of Barber, Hanson, and Creston. Not only does the work boast a gorgeously luxuriant slow movement, but it is also a masterpiece of symphonic construction, in which each theme is derived from the main theme of the first movement—which is, in turn, derived completely from the interval of the fourth (perhaps in recognition of its being a “fourth” symphony)—while embracing all twelve tones of the chromatic scale. In short, it is one more example demonstrating that music with immediate accessibility need not be simplistic or otherwise flimsy in its construction.

Lee Hoiby is one of the few traditional American neo-romantics still actively composing, and the preceding year has witnessed a number of important new recordings within the genres in which he has produced his most distinguished work: opera and song. His adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (reviewed in this issue) has been produced several times since its premiere in 1986. Its April, 2008, performance at Purchase College in New York State, which I had the pleasure of attending, was released this year on the Albany label. This was a marvelous presentation, beautifully performed and brilliantly staged; I can attest to the fact that the production has been magnificently captured on this recording. I would also go so far as to assert that Hoiby’s adaptation is one of the great Shakespearian operas. Gripping right from its opening moments, this is a work that should not be overlooked by anyone with an interest in American opera. 

Hoiby has also composed about a hundred song settings, which have been championed by many of our leading singers, most notably Leontyne Price. Two CDs devoted to them have appeared during the past few months (and are reviewed in this issue). Both releases are fine samplings of Hoiby’s contribution to the American art song literature, although neither is wholly without some minor vocal shortcomings. I have a slight preference for the Naxos disc, simply because the presence of two singers—soprano Julia Faulkner and baritone Andrew Garland—rather than one offers a bit more variety for the ear, while the composer’s own renditions of the piano accompaniments lend a self-evident authority. The 22 songs themselves display an exquisite hypersensitivity reminiscent of Samuel Barber’s fine contributions to the medium; the best of them reveal the sort of beauty that upon first hearing seems to echo some faint, distant memory. Although the recording is superb, honorable mention must be extended to the other recent release, which features soprano Ursula Keinecke-Boyer (Albany TROY1102) in a program of 19 songs, eight of which are also found on the Naxos disc.

CORIGLIANO A Dylan Thomas Trilogy • Slatkin/Allen,Jackson,Tessier/Nashville Ch & SO • NAXOS 8.559394

GIANNINI Symphony No. 4. Piano Concerto • Spalding/Imreh/Bournemouth SO • NAXOS 8.559352

HOIBY A Pocket of Time (22 songs) • Falkner,Garland/Hoiby • NAXOS 8.559375

HOIBY The Tempest • Murphy/Balonek,Davey,Webber,Benevento,Caputo et al./Purchase SO • ALBANY TROY 1106/07 (2 CDs)