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Claude BAKER (b. 1948)
Piano Concerto From Noon to Starry Night (2010) [30:00]
Aus Schwanengesang (2001) [20:00]
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra/Juanjo Mena; Gilbert Varga
rec. live, 9-10 October 2009 (Schwanengesang); 7-8 January 2011 (Concerto), Hilbert Circle Theatre, Indianapolis

Claude Baker is an American composer from North Carolina and an Eastman graduate. There his composition teachers included Samuel Adler. He was Composer-in-Residence at the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra (1991-2000). Currently he is a senior staff member at Indiana University, Bloomington and its website includes recordings of his music.

This is Baker's second disc from Naxos. It proffers two substantial works for curious minds to probe.

This composer is strong on cultural landmarks as instigating factors. The disc references Whitman as well as the post-mortem Schwanengesang collection of Schubert's songs. Hesse's Steppenwolf also puts in an appearance in the Concerto. Hesse has a measure of recurrence, his Glass Bead Game having been on Baker's first Naxos CD. His The Mystic Trumpeter - a work that is subsumed into the Piano Concerto - re-threads the Whitman connection on the first Naxos disc.
Amongst the commissioners for the Piano Concerto From Noon to Starry Night were the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. The concerto comments upon Whitman's poems, many familiar from the work of other composers including Harris, Hindemith, Holst, Rorem, RVW and Bliss. The titles are Beat! Beat! Drums!, Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun, Warble for Lilac-Time, Dalliance of the Eagles and Mystic Trumpeter.

The first two movements (Drum Taps and Silent Sun) sound out as statements of bellicose dissonance. Lilacs takes some of the edge off with combers and rollers of lush romantic string writing that recalls both Mahler and Ives. The very brief Dalliance has some impressively torrential work for Hamelin's piano. Baker saves his most commanding inventions for the final Ecstatic Ghost with its evocation of chasmal depths, refined silvery heights and caverns "measureless to man". An artfully distanced trumpet rings out in a good simulacrum of the three dimensions; well done those audio engineers. The Messiaen-like brass reach out and there's more juxtaposing of dizzy high and sepulchral at the close. This grasping at impossibly aspiring magnificence is understandably well received before the applause becomes dignified. This work is most masterfully orchestrated - Baker's brilliance lies just as much in discriminating restraint as it does in blitzkrieg volume.

Aus Schwanengesang - most of which is not in the same ballpark as the Concerto - was composed in memory of Peter Worsley. The composer met the widow and learnt that the Worsleys had been raised in English seaside villages. As the title infers, the waypoint here is Schubertian but once again it's not pure collage - far from it. Each of the movements follows the titles of the one of the Schwanengesang songs. Der Atlas has 'grumping' red-eyed brass (as if from Mussorgsky) and there are some Schubert shreds and crumbs in the swirling mix. Das Fischermädchen delivers an image of elegant and slightly zany birds while Am Meer deploys a stolid hymn which is disrupted by a gargantuan drum cannonade. Der Doppelgänger's shivers and shudders precede Der Atlas into which Baker has poured more of himself in music that approaches, but does not quite attain, the heights of Ecstatic Ghost. There's polite applause.

The generously detailed notes are by the composer and are in English. They strike me as pretty direct, being devoid of circumlocution, foggy modesty or bragging vacuity.

Dissonance with fine craftsmanship among these works which make play with imaginative promontories, processed collage and lucid orchestration.

Rob Barnett



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