HOIBY: Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra. Sonata for Violin and Piano. Narrative. Schubert Variations.

by Walter Simmons



HOIBY: Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra. Sonata for Violin and Piano. Narrative. Schubert Variations. Robert Stankovsky conducting the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Stanley Babin, piano; Daniel Heifetz, violin; Lee Hoiby, piano. MMC Recordings MMC2038 [DDD]; 70:53.

Lee Hoiby, who turned 70 this year, might be described–along with Nicolas Flagello and Robert Muczynski — as part of the last generation of American composers whose music has relied exclusively on traditional compositional techniques, with no reference at all to the trappings of “Modernism”. However, aside from this aesthetic affinity and the superficial similarities that might follow, the music of these three composers reflects their own quite divergent temperaments. main focus of Hoiby’s creative output has been vocal music: operas, choral works, and solo songs (seeFanfare 19:1, pp. 226-7, for two reviews of a lovely Hoiby song collection). However, he is also a superb pianist and has produced some fine works as vehicles for his own performance, and has composed other instrumental music as well. It is the purely instrumental aspect of Hoiby’s art that is featured on this excellent new release.

Hoiby was one of Samuel Barber’s few composition students and the expressive content and formal qualities of his music are very close to that of his teacher. However, while most of Barber’s music is tinged with melancholy, Hoiby’s reveals an innocent sweetness and sense of hope, expressed in a manner that is uniquely his own. An aspect of this manner is a certain modesty shared also by Muczynski, another composer-pianist) — perceptible not only in its emotional temperament, but also in its approach to musical form. That is, there is nothing extrinsic or ostentatious about Hoiby’s formal structures; rather, forms serve to highlight and display unobtrusively the particular virtues of the music. In “classical,” abstract works, such as the Violin Sonata and the Concerto No. 2, forms are thoroughly conventional, with melodic aspect dominating, and with slow movements playing a central role. In his vocal music, reflection of the emotions suggested by the text is primary, while in abstract works of more dramatic character, with wider and more subjective expressive range, such as the Narrative for piano, formal coherence is achieved through readily apparent manipulations of a few basic motifs. All these qualities make Hoiby’s musicvery accessible and often sweetly lovable, although in the “classical” works portions are at times so conventional as to sound obligatory and unconvincing. It is indeed a pity that so little of Hoiby’s finest music is represented on recordings. However, at least this new CD provides us with a representative sample of Hoiby’s instrumental works.

For me the most impressive work on the disc is the ten-minute Narrative for piano solo, dating from 1983. This is the sort of piece Samuel Barber might have written but never did. Most resembling the latter’s 1977 Ballade, with a similar emotional restlessness that takes the shape of a single rhapsodic movement, Hoiby’s Narrative is a far more coherent and fully consummated work — indeed, one of his finest instrumental works and one that deserves far wider exposure. Its expansive warmth and emotional depth and sensitivity will appeal to the listener sympathetic to Barber’s mode of expression. The composer’s own performance is masterful in its subtlety and technical security. The most ambitious work on the disc is the Piano Concerto No. 2, composed in 1979, 22 years after its predecessor, which Hoiby fans will remember from a performance by John Atkins on an old CRI LP. There is no significant stylistic evolution evident from that work to this. Both are warm, endearingly lyrical, yet thoroughly virtuosic, concertos. Next to them, the Barber Piano Concerto seems virile, harsh, and angular. Of Hoiby’s two, the second is perhaps a little more extroverted, robust, and emotionally straightforward. The opening bursts forth with exuberant good cheer, although, as one might expect, it is the lyrical second subject that holds one’s attention and affection. The slow movement is, of course, the most distinctive and memorable portion of the work, a meltingly beautiful pastoral landscape that speaks with the utmost directness and simplicity. The finale represents the side of Hoiby that appeals least to me, despite some pretty moments. Its character might be described as a “playful romp,” in the manner of a kinder, gentler Prokofiev The thematic material is banal, and the treatment predictable. Stanley Babin fulfills the solo role with impeccable precision and richness of tone, and the Slovak Radio orchestra provides adequate support.

The Schubert Variations consist of ten different treatments of a theme — a surprisingly somber one, at that — from one of Schubert’s German Dances, D. 366.It was completed in 1981, 4 though begun much earlier. About 15 minutes in duration, theVariations are excellent showcases for Hoiby’s compositional technique, as well as for his own piano technique. They are imaginative and thoroughly idiomatic, covering a wider stylistic range than one might anticipate, with more musical substance and expressive complexity than virtuosic fluff and filigree.

Hoiby composed most of his Violin Sonata in 1952, adding a movement and revising the others in 1979. Now in four movements, it is one of the more attractive mid-century American violin sonatas, calling to mind the early effort by John Corigliano, though considerably less busy. Like that work, however, it is too conventional in style and content to rank with the best of the genre, e.g., the Sonata Concertant by Peter Mennin, to name one. The first movement of Hoiby’s sonata has a friendly, inviting quality, with a lilting lyrical warmth that is more overtly American-sounding than most of the composer’s work. The slow third movement is, again, the strongest, with a long, intense build-up to an impressive climax. However, the unmistakably Prokofievian scherzo (added later) and the exuberant finale are rather predictable, lacking a strong character of their own. The performance, featuring violinist Daniel Heifetz with the composer at the piano, is exemplary.