Milton Babbitt

0 of 5 stars

Around the Horn [1993]
Whirled Series [1987]
None But the Lonely Flute [1987]
Homily [1987]
Beaten Paths [1989]
Play it again, Sam [1989]
Soli e Duettini [1989]
Melismata [1982]

The Group for Contemporary Music

Recorded in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, in 1994 and 1995

Reviewed by: Morgan Hayes

Reviewed: March 2006
CD No: NAXOS 8.559259
Duration: 75 minutes

A distinguished music colleague friend of mine chuckled with disbelief when I told him that Milton Babbitt (90 this year, 2006) was about to feature on the Naxos label. There’s a sneaking prejudice that Babbitt – famed for his teaching and academic achievements – represents such a wholehearted embrace of esoteric theories, that the actual act of listening to his compositions is a largely non-essential experience. As critic Greg Sandow once observed, in a highly favourable article: “Milton Babbitt is a bristling theorist, a man whose name is never mentioned in the same sentence as the words musical pleasure”

Furthermore, Babbitt has been perpetually dogged by a relatively mild article he wrote for High Fidelity Magazine in 1958 in which the editors cheekily inserted the most arrogant of titles “Who cares if you listen?” To this day, Babbitt is still incorrectly linked with this headline by some of the lazier commentators.

Ironically enough, Babbitt emerges as one of the most eminently listenable of all the post-war Modernist composers. In his best work, there’s a friendly lightness of touch and driving energy which immediately grabs one’s attention, and this present disc (originally on Koch Classics) contains more than a few gems.

Around the Horn (1993) is the most recent composition and demonstrates Babbitt’s unflagging invention in his later years as well as his desire that a piece of music should literally contain as much as possible. In this instance, the punning title refers to the stratospheric twists and turns required of the hyper-virtuoso horn player (here the indefatigable William Purvis) who hops seamlessly between the registers. With its witty asides and splintered references to what can seem like the entire gamut of horn repertoire – the third movement of Mahler’s 5th Symphony is apparent at 2’13” on track 2 and is quickly terminated a few seconds later by the most flippant of gestures – and there’s also more than a step in the direction of the legendary BBC comedy series “Round the Horne”.

Besides the surprisingly engaging 4 minutes of snare drum (Homily) there’s Beaten Paths for solo marimba which abounds in chirpy musings along the same lines as some of Babbitt’s extraordinary piano solos but given a more reflective slant. Thomas Kolor adroitly negotiates his way through the seismic shifts in dynamics and capricious changes of mood.

As a youngster, Babbitt was an accomplished violinist and in some ways the most deeply affecting work is the 19-minute Melismata (1982) given a spellbindingly beautiful performance here by Curtis Macomber. There are numerous threads which run through this passionate violin solo, one of which is an E minor triad first heard 15 seconds in: surely a wistful reminiscence of Mendelssohn’s Concerto. Because the thematic material is so clearly etched, it’s not difficult to follow the successive transformations. For example: at 14’30” you can hear that E minor triad idea exquisitely suspended over a longer period of time in the relative major. The more one listens (score or textbook completely unnecessary), the more one enjoys the complex network of relationships.

In an interview, Babbitt once called himself “a man of the university whose music reflects the life of the academy in the best sense of the word” and the remaining works enshrine this modest aspiration rather well. There’s a nicely crafted, Boulezian surface to Soli e Duettini and Whirled Series, which doesn’t quite ignite (keeping the listener at arms length) and I’m reminded that Babbitt’s music often makes the strongest impression when – almost in spite of itself – there’s an element of the preposterous hanging over both the conception and realisation. Greg Sandow expressed this aspect in his outstanding article “The Fine Madness of Milton Babbitt” where he relates Babbitt to such 1950s’ phenomena as abstract expressionism, monster movies and rock ‘n’ roll.

There’s plenty to enjoy on this generously filled Naxos compilation – and I’d urge listeners to purchase recordings of blockbusters like the Piano Concerto, Relata 1, Transfigured Notes, Solo Requiem, and Allegro Penseroso. All of them are tremendously bold pieces by one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated of living composers.

Finally, the extensive booklet notes by Joseph Dubiel deserve a special mention. He wisely avoids the maddening technical jargon favoured by Babbitt himself (and some of his admirers) and attempts to describe, in more personal terms, how the music sounds. For the most part this works well enough, and he gives detailed accounts of each piece, but I’m at a loss to know what the German translator made of some of the frankly weird sentences, of which this is but one example: “Babbitt typically makes every note figure in several melodies: at least the melody of its immediate predecessors and successors (possibly rather unlike it) and the slower melody of notes like it (possibly removed from it in time).”

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