HOIBY The Tempest (2 CDs). A Pocket of Time (21 Songs and a Duet). Songs of Lee Hoiby

HOIBY The Tempest • Robert Balonek (Prospero); Molly Davey (Ariel), Catherine Webber (Miranda), Joshua Benevento (Caliban), Anthony Caputo (Ferdinand) et al. soloists; Hugh Murphy, cond; Purchase Opera and SO • ALBANY TROY-1106/1107 (2 CDs: 147:01)

HOIBY A Pocket of Time (21 Songs and a Duet) • Julia Faulkner (sop); Andrew Garland (bar); Lee Hoiby (pn) • A Pocket of Time. Pierrot. In the Wand of the Wind. Lady of the Harbor. The Lamb. Where the Music Comes From. To an Isle in the Water. Winter Hubris. Jabberwocky. Lied der Liebe. Nuits. I Was There (Five Whitman Poems). Autumn. Evening. The Darkling Thrush. Last Letter Home. Goodby, Goodby World. The Nightingale and the Lark. NAXOS 8.559375 (75:12)

HOIBY Songs of Lee Hoiby • Ursula Kleinecke-Boyer (sop); María Pérez-Goodman (pn) •
Winter Song. The Doe. To an Isle in the Water. An Immorality. In the Wand of the Wind. Summer Song. She Tells Her Love. Where the Music Comes From. The Message. Autumn. Evening. Twenty-Eight Young Men. Lady of the Harbor. always it’s Spring. What if … Jabberwocky. The Lamb. The Shepherd. The Serpent. ALBANY TROY-1102 (50:01)

With the exception of Robert Ward (still active at 92, last I heard), Lee Hoiby (now 83) is probably America’s oldest traditional neo-romantic, still composing. Although he has made valuable contributions to most musical genres, his songs, choral anthems, and operas represent his most distinguished efforts. Hoiby’s musical language places his best efforts in the stylistic vicinity of such composers as Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem, while his lesser efforts call to mind the music of Gian Carlo Menotti. But this is not to suggest that Hoiby doesn’t have a voice of his own; indeed, he does, although it is perhaps not such a strikingly individual one. Less pretentious than Rorem’s, Hoiby’s music is even more resolutely tonal and diatonic than that of his three confreres, and more consonant harmonically, as well, although fluid modulations, chromatic and modal ambiguities, and well-placed dissonances keep things active and interesting.

The Tempest is Hoiby’s most recently completed opera (Romeo and Juliet is not yet finished, as far as I know), and it has already enjoyed several productions. Premiered by the Des Moines Metro Opera, it was subsequently mounted by the opera companies of Kansas City and Dallas. Whether there have been more I don’t know, but the one documented on this recording took place in 2008 at Purchase College in Purchase, New York. I had the pleasure of attending that production, from which I exited in a state of near ecstasy. The reasons for this are apparent when one listens to this recent release in Albany’s continuing—and increasingly momentous—series of recordings of American operas. Although it was a production of the Purchase College Opera Department, many of the individuals involved here have worked together extensively—some on this opera, in particular. The adaptation of Shakespeare’s rather complex play into a coherent, workable libretto was undertaken by Mark Shulgasser, Hoiby’s longtime collaborator as well as his life partner. The artistic director of this production was Jacque Trussel, who had played the role of Caliban in the Des Moines premiere, as well as in the subsequent production in Dallas. Conductor Hugh Murphy was Trussel’s vocal coach for both the Des Moines and Dallas productions. 

The Tempest has always been something of an enigma among Shakespeare’s plays. Autobiographical elements have often been attributed to what was his final drama. The play has at times been interpreted as a meditation on the playwright’s own body of work and its value; the character of Prospero has been viewed by some as a representation of Shakespeare himself. Shulgasser has adopted this interpretation, setting the play as a dream conjured by the sleeping playwright’s own unconscious mind. This gives the play the quality of a fantasy, supported by Hoiby’s buoyant, shimmering music, which is largely through-composed in arioso style, with minimal use of recitative. The orchestration is richly luxuriant, contributing to the pervasively dreamlike, magical quality of the work. The result maintains a mood of affectionate detachment, which effectively captures and combines its various elements into a consistently engaging and appealing whole. 

Overall, the cast of this production was splendid. While, not surprisingly, some of the smaller roles might have been stronger, the leading characters—Prospero, Miranda, Ariel, Caliban, and Ferdinand—were handled beautifully, while the orchestra projected the airy textures to great effect. It was not surprising to learn that the production won first prize in the National Opera Association’s annual competition in 2008.

Hoiby has composed approximately a hundred songs, and it is for these that he is probably best known. No doubt contributing to their success has been their adoption into the repertoires of some leading singers, especially Leontyne Price, who sang them frequently, and for whom he composed the Songs for Leontyne around 1980. The two recital discs discussed here represent, to the best of my knowledge, the second and third recordings devoted exclusively to Hoiby’s songs. The first was released by CRI during the mid 1990s, and was entitled “Continual Conversation with a Silent Man,” featuring baritone Peter Stewart, with the composer at the piano. From the standpoint of vocal performance, that was probably the best of the three, although with CRI now defunct, this recording has entered the limbo of marginal availability where most of the products of that company can (or cannot) be found.

The songs on these two recent releases roughly span the entire second half of the 20th century—and even reach into the 21st. It is easy to discuss these songs collectively, but difficult to comment on them in detail, as their felicities are many—too many and too specific to itemize here—while there is relatively little with which to find fault. This is music, as I have written with respect to Barber, that is “beautiful,” as that term is understood by the average listener. Many of the songs—“Where the Music Comes From” (with a text by the composer), for example, or “The Lamb” (Blake), or “Lady of the Harbor” (Lazarus [from the Statue of Liberty])—are simple and direct, without the precious pretensions associated with “art songs” or “Lieder.” In other words, they are apt settings of melody to poetry, and though Hoiby’s writing for piano is exceedingly fluent and fluid, some of the accompaniments could be effectively transcribed for another accompanying instrument, such as guitar; and would be just as effective if sung without “operatic projection.” In fact, some are rather overbearing when given the latter treatment. When Hoiby cites Joni Mitchell among his chief influences, he is not being glibly perverse. 

Other songs, such as “Winter Hubris,” “Lied der Liebe,” “Autumn,” “Evening,” “Darkling Thrush,” “Goodbye, Goodbye World,” and “She Tells Her Love,” are somewhat more oblique and sophisticated, but never cold, sterile, or remote. Between the two recital discs, eight of the songs appear on both. My only reservation concerning the programs—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 by a single composer, one after the other, creates a generalized impression that tends to obscure the specific, unique merits of individual selections. Concentrating on a small group can intensify one’s focus and shed a more revealing light on the collection as a whole. 
Hoiby’s songs display a remarkably consistent sense of good taste; though many of his texts deal with intense, vulnerable emotions, rarely, if ever, does he cross the line into kitsch. In addition, his workmanship, sensitivity to language, and wide range of expression are on a par with Barber’s, placing them among the most sensitive and rewarding of American art songs.

Both discs offer adequate presentations of these lovely songs, while neither provides vocal artistry at the very highest level. My highest recommendation goes to the Peter Stewart recital on CRI, if it can be found. Otherwise, although texts are not included and must be accessed from the company’s website, I have a slight preference for the Naxos release: sharing the program between two voices—a soprano and a baritone—offers a variety that is most welcome, although both singers—Julia Faulkner and Andrew Garland—have a tendency to become frayed during moments of duress. Also, this disc includes “Last Letter Home,” the moving setting of a heartbreaking letter to his family from a U.S. Army sergeant stationed in Iraq, to be read by them in the event of his death, which occurred in 2003. Furthermore, the authoritative accompaniments provided by the composer—still a superb pianist—give a bit of an edge to that release, although Albany’s pianist, María Pérez-Goodman, need offer no apology. The Albany disc, on the other hand, provides the texts for all but two of the 19 songs on the program. But Mexican soprano Ursula Kleinecke-Boyer’s voice takes on an unpleasant stridency at moments of the slightest intensity, while the timing of this disc is a good 25 minutes shorter than the Naxos.

Lee Hoiby’s songs are part of the vocal repertoires of most singers who include music of the 20th century on their programs. Listeners with a taste for neo-romantic lyricism are strongly urged to sample this music if they are not already familiar with it, and Naxos’s budget price keeps the risk at a minimal level. Those who already appreciate Hoiby’s music may well want to own all three of these releases.