Picks of the Year: 2011

Of the new releases that came my way this past year there were two that met my criteria of rare but extraordinarily fine repertoire in excellent performances. One was the long-awaited first recording of the late (1926-2011) Lee Hoiby’s deeply moving 1970 opera Summer and Smoke (to be reviewed in the next issue), based on the Tennessee Williams play of that name. Hoiby was one of the finest contributors to the American operatic repertoire, although not all his offerings are of equal stature. Some aim to be pure entertainment, and some may find them a little silly. But The Tempest, based on the Shakespeare play, is magnificent, and made my Want List a few years ago. (And Hoiby’s last opera, Romeo and Juliet, remains unperformed at this time. I have, however, heard extended excerpts from a private reading, and hold out high hopes for its inevitable first production.) But at this point, Summer and Smoke is my favorite of his operas. Its themes—the presumed opposition between spirituality and sexuality, and the shame-based repression of the latter—are ideal and not infrequent subjects in opera, and Hoiby captures the aching, throbbing, yearning for fulfillment that serves as the underlying emotional core of the play with music ideally suited to such feelings. The performance, taken from a Manhattan School of Music production in December, 2010, which I attended, does quite a good job of realizing the work’s potential. While not the proverbial “last word,” it projects the qualities of the opera, while offering an opportunity for others—opera companies, singers, as well as listeners—to become familiar with this important and very moving work.

The Leighton disc was reviewed in 34:4. I have only recently become acquainted with English composer Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988), and am convinced that he is a truly important figure—a modern traditionalist comparable in stature to some of America’s finest contemporaneous purveyors of abstract modern symphonic music. I find his music thoroughly international in style, although some trace his lineage from Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 4. The disc noted here is but one of several recent releases that document Leighton’s stature convincingly. The Symphony No. 1 (1963-64) is a compelling work of considerable power and emotional intensity, while the Piano Concerto No. 3, though ostensibly “more relaxed and lyrical,” is similarly stern and harsh, but no less compelling. The performances on this recording are extremely impressive. 

HOIBY Summer and Smoke ●Osgood/Viemeister/Strommer et al./MSM Op Theatre ● ALBANY TROY 1272/73 (2CDs)

LEIGHTON Symphony No. 1/Piano Concerto No. 3 ● Brabbins/Shelley/BBC Nat O of Wales ● CHANDOS CHAN-10608