by Walter Simmons
HOIBY: Songs (18). Peter Stewart, baritone; Lee Hoiby, piano.
CRI CD-685 [DDD]; 56:51. Produced by Marc Aubort, Joanna Nickrenz.
O Florida (5 songs). I Was There (5 songs). Two Songs of Innocence. An Immorality. Night. Where the Music Comes From. Why Don’t You? What If . . . Investiture at Cecconi’s
Now nearly 70 years old, Lee Hoiby has been slowly and quietly amassing a body of work notable for both its authenticity of feeling and its consistently high quality. All the music of his that I know is permeated by an unashamedly gentle and vulnerable sensibility and often by a subtle sweetness as well. Although he has worked in most media and genres, his best and generally, best-known work has been his operatic, choral, and solo vocal music, which inhabits the sensitive, lyrical aesthetic domain associated with Ned Rorem and, especially, Samuel Barber, who was his teacher and close associate. This new compact disc provides the opportunity to become acquainted with eighteen of Hoiby’s many songs in fine, sympathetic performances featuring baritone Peter Stewart, accompanied by the composer, who is an excellent, professional-level pianist
It is easy to review this disc briefly and succinctly, because its felicities are many–too many and too specific to itemize here–with no shortcomings of any consequence. This is music, as I wrote recently in reference to Samuel Barber, that is “beautiful,” as that term is understood by the average listener. My one reservation–and it is one I have made before with regard to CD collections featuring many unfamiliar songs–is that attempting to absorb a dozen or two songs, one after the other by a single composer, creates a generalized impression that tends to obscure the specific, unique merits of individual selections. I find that concentrating on a small group can intensify one’s focus and shed a more revealing light on the collection as a whole.
For example, if I were introducing this disc to a friend, I would play perhaps “The Lamb” from the Two Songs of Innocence, for its poignant spiritual purity, and the dramatic setting of “Oh Captain My Captain!” from the five Whitman settings entitled “I Was There.” I might also play “Where the Music Comes From,” in which Hoiby sets a text of his own, as he does in the choral Hymn to the New Age, in a somewhat more popular language, to create an idealistic yet very personal statement of fervent hope and love of humanity. These are perhaps the songs on the disc that are most direct in effect. Others, such as “Investiture at Cecconi’s” and the Wallace Stevens settings, O Florida, are somewhat more oblique and sophisticated. But Hoiby’s music is never cold, sterile, or remote.
Lee Hoiby’s music is not adequately represented on recording at this time. It would be wonderful to be able to enjoy some of his operas, such as Summer and Smoke and The Tempest, in the sort of definitive treatment recently accorded Carlisle Floyd’s
Susannah. There is also a gorgeous oratorio called Galileo Galilei that has never been recorded, a lovely Hymn of the Nativity, many shorter choral works, and an excellent solo piano work called Narrative. A Gothic CD of short choral works is, I believe, a reissue of an LP that suffered badly from poor recorded sound. Hoiby’s music will offer substantial rewards to a large number of listeners.