BAKSA Sonata for Flute and Guitar.. Sonata da Camera. Journeys.. Sonata da Giardino.. Celestials – Annette Heim (fl); Bret Heim (gtr); Christine Bock (va) – MSR CLASSICS (63:32)
Now in his early 70s, New York City-native Robert Baksa has been following his own muse for many years. For much of that time, as a staunch, unapologetic tonalist, he was strongly at odds with prevailing fashion. When I first discovered his music, about 30 years ago, there were no recordings of his work, and few performances. Said to be quite bitter about being thus marginalized, he nevertheless continued to compose prolifically, and has by now amassed a body of work numbering more than 500 pieces. He has also lived to see musical fashions change to the point where the fruits of his creativity—once dismissed out of hand—are now performed and recorded with some regularity, finding a responsive niche of enthusiasts among those favoring such ultra-conservative composers as Stefania de Kenessey, Eric Ewazen, and others.
I can’t say that I am familiar with a large proportion of Baksa’s work, although the music on this recent release—composed between 1994 and 2005—is cut from the same cloth, stylistically speaking, as the previous pieces I’ve heard. Always skillfully and tastefully constructed, impeccably tailored to the instruments at hand, unobtrusive and never jarring, Baksa’s music serves a most useful function: pleasant background music to accompany such mundane activities as dinner, social conversation, or reading—i.e., the sort of function that might otherwise be filled by routine Baroque pieces, or instrumental arrangements of pop songs, or new-age “ear candy.” I say this without intending to be disparaging; indeed, Baksa’s music fulfills this function at a higher artistic level than such other alternatives. Its overall character might be likened to the music of Ned Rorem at its most accessible—and it would certainly fall into the “French” half of Rorem’s familiar aesthetic dichotomy. It might be described as neo-classical, but a variety that owes nothing to Stravinsky, but rather is largely diatonic and consonant, although generous use of seventh-chords dates its provenance from the past hundred years. But leading tones and dominants arrive at tonics, and suspensions and appoggiaturas resolve as expected. One might compare it to the music of, say, Robert Muczynski, who has also focused on tonal, accessible chamber music; but the difference is that Muczynski’s work exhibits a dark moodiness, and a sense of expressive complexity that gives it much greater emotional depth, while demanding more attention from the listener. For me the major limitation of Baksa’s music is the narrowness of its expressive range. It rarely deviates from an overall sense of “pleasantness, ” with little variety from piece to piece, which contributes to its appropriateness as background music, as well as its tediousness if auditioned too attentively. It also lacks melodic distinction. While this is not a pre-requisite for great music, it is the saving grace of much music that has little else going for it.
Since the music on this CD is all so similar, I will not discuss the pieces individually. I will say, however, that the Heim Duo, augmented in one piece by violist Christine Bock, all perform beautifully.