Ronald E. Grames
, March 2013
…this Naxos release of live recordings originally made for broadcast between 1990 and 1999, funded by Indiana University in Bloomington where Baker holds an endowed professorship, is a most welcome redress of an unfortunate oversight.
The Glass Bead Game (1982/83)—inspired, as is almost all of his music, by a literary work and quoting from the compositions of others as annotation—is quintessential Claude Baker and therefore a perfect work to open the program. Baker uses Hesse and the music to shine a light on 20th-century musical obsessions, using a brilliantly executed numerologically complex serial canon; a dream-like, period-correct performance of a Johann Schein courtly dance commented upon by modern atonality; and an amazing collage of six works by Dallapiccola, Schoenberg, Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, Penderecki, and Liszt, given unity by their incorporation of the famous B-A-C-H motive. These six pieces are assimilated Castalian-syle into a final movement, which is both amazing in its virtuosity and sobering in its ultimate emptiness.
Shadows: Four Dirge-Nocturnes (1990) and The Mystic Trumpeter (1999) are grounded as well in literary sources. In Shadows, Baker explores four haiku, using characteristics of the form—syllable counts, binary construction, and motivic concision—as compositional elements. The verses and the music are dark, evoking death, the graveyard, and mourning in each of the seasons from spring through winter. Woven into the nocturnal work are gestures, fragments, and quotes from works by Mahler, Britten, and Stravinsky, ending touchingly with a quote from “In diesem Wetter” from Kindertotenlieder. The Mystic Trumpeter concerns itself with Walt Whitman, finding both literal and symbolic connection between the verse—the title poem and “The Dalliance of the Eagles”—and Ives’s The Unanswered Question , and works by Messiaen, George Rochberg, and medieval troubadour Guiraut de Bornelh. Awaking the Winds (1993) is the anomaly. It has no literary precursor, contains no borrowed music, and is “freely chromatic” rather than Baker’s usual combination of tonality and atonality. Unlike the other works that are heavily driven by the percussion section, this one eschews even timpani. It essentially is a pastorale, though the composer disavows any programmatic intent, with suggestions of wind and sounds of nature, a storm, and a quiet dénouement.
The execution of this bold, dramatic, and exceedingly challenging music is flawless, the moments of quiet and delicacy are sublimely poised, and even more to the advantage of the music, all is presented with absolute conviction. Recordings exist online of Indiana University ensembles playing this music—although The Mystic Trumpeter seems to have disappeared for now—but good as they are—and the fine Shadows is even conducted by Slatkin—none of the IU performances can match these in function or insight. The recordings themselves, the majority engineered by the late/lamented William Hoekstra, are demonstration class, and reveal little of the very quiet audiences. They should serve admirably to introduce the work of the composer to those not so fortunate, as well. © 2013 Fanfare Read complete review