Claude BAKER (b. 1948)
The glass bead game (1982, revised 1983) [22.39]
Awaking the winds (1993) [13.05]
Shadows: Four dirge-nocturnes (1990) [18.07]
The mystic trumpeter (1999) [12.45]
St Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin, Hans Vonk (Trumpeter)
rec. Powell Hall, St Louis, Missouri, 21-24 November 1991 (Bead): 14-16 May 1993 (Winds): 18-20 May 1990 (Shadows): 16-18 April 1999 (Trumpeter)
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559642 [66:41]
The employment by one composer of a theme or themes by another - to construct a rhapsody, fantasia, ‘symphonic metamorphosis’ or simply a set of variations - is a long-established and valid method. So is pastiche, where one composer deliberately sets out to imitate the style of another. The use of collage, the employment of themes by a variety of different composers in the context of another work, can be a very dangerous and two-edged technique. Following the pioneering works in this field by Charles Ives, it is perhaps notable that the only work to employ extensive collage which has gained general acceptance is Berio’s Sinfonia¸where the composer’s intention is clearly satirical. Three of the four works on this disc use collage to a very considerable extent, and the danger is always that the listener will follow the music from one quotation to another like a game of “spot that tune”. This has the concomitant danger that the listener may even think that they can identify a quotation where none is intended; I found myself suspecting brief citations from Puccini’s Turandot (track 3, 5.06), Britten’s Peter Grimes (track 7, 0.24), and Berg’s Wozzeck (track 7, 1.06) at various points. These are not really quotations at all, merely examples of the lingua franca of any composer who employs classical methods; but one becomes uncomfortably aware that one is not too far from works like Franz Reizenstein’s Concerto popolare, a piece that is not meant to be taken seriously at all.
The other very real danger in the use of collage technique is that the quotations from other composers may overshadow the creator’s own music. The profile of Baker’s own personality is not always strong here - rather we hear a typically modern atonal series of events that do not always form a coherent whole. It is a cause for real concern that the one passage in The glass bead game which seems to go somewhere in terms of musical development is the relatively lengthy and literal quotation from the finale of Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony (track 3, 7.29). Again, in the haiku-based Shadows: Four dirge-nocturnes, the quotations from Mahler in the first and last movements constitute the most memorable music in the work - even though the way in which Baker expands on the doom-laden opening chords of the Mahler Abschied at the beginning of the piece is most impressive. The one piece here where the citations from other composers do not prominently obtrude themselves is The mystic trumpeter, where the references are less overtly tonal in idiom, deriving as they do from Ives, Messiaen, George Rochberg and the mediaeval troubadour Guiraut de Bornelh.
Baker clearly derives much of his inspiration from literary models, citing not only Whitman in The mystic trumpeter but also Hermann Hesse in The glass bead game. Indeed the latter is a very serious consideration of the philosophical tenets which underlie Hesse’s original book - the need for originality rather than imitation in the creation of new art, and here Baker’s use of collage techniques has very real meaning. The piece Awakening the winds is the only work here which totally forswears the use of quotation, which the composer states in his booklet note “contains no extra-musical associations” - why then, one is driven to ask, the evocative and poetic title? The composer contends that his “radical departure from an aesthetic I have long embraced should by no means be seen as a repudiation of my other efforts” but it does rather stand apart from the other works on this disc, with its use of more contrapuntal techniques and less reliance on instrumental colour as an element in its own right. Baker clearly relishes the sound of the orchestra; his writing often falls gratefully on the ear.
The performances here are everything that could be wished, both those under Leonard Slatkin and that under his successor in St Louis Hans Vonk. Many of the works were commissioned the works written during the period from 1991 to 1999 when Baker was composer-in-residence with the orchestra, and the players clearly relish the always idiomatic music they are given to play. I may say that my rather stupid old dog, who is usually totally impervious to whatever music is going on around him, was dozing on my lap when I first listened to this disc, and was riveted by some of the sounds that were coming out of the loudspeakers. In fact he paid more attention to the music than he did to some horses passing in the road outside - Orpheus charming the animals, indeed. The recorded sound is exemplary, although I would have liked a bit more sound from the wistful solo violin which concludes the last movement of Shadows.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
The performances here are everything that could be wished.
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