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Milton BABBITT (b 1916)
Quatrains (1993)
Tony Arnold (soprano)
Charles Neidich and Ayako Oshima (clarinet)
Manifold Music (1995)
Gregory D’Agostino (organ)
My Ends Are My Beginnings (1978)
Allen Blustine (clarinet and bass clarinet)
Soli e Duettini (1989)
William Anderson and Oren Fader (guitar)
Swan Song No. 1 (2003)
Cygnus Ensemble
Recorded 1992-2003
BRIDGE 9135 [50.42]


Philip Larkin’s reviews of John Coltrane came unbidden to mind as I staggered through fifty minutes of Milton Babbitt. Doubtless gruesomely underqualified for appreciating the complex algebra of Babbitt’s muse I found solace – a wintry, rather ambiguous solace – in the ironically titled Swan Song No 1, a work written this year (2003) and one housing degrees of angularity and difficulty not untouched by more overt stirrings of warmth. This work, written for the seemingly bewildering line-up of guitar, mandolin, cello, violin, flute and oboe, opens with each instrument entering in turn and is full of imitation and registral exploitation and makes a satisfying close to a recital long on variety and timbral diversity.

What is not here, conspicuously, is Babbitt’s electronic music. What we do have is music for chamber or solo forces, which ranges from solo organ to the ensemble Swan Song via two clarinet, two guitar and vocal works. Quatrains takes a poem by John Hollander – a favoured poet of Elliott Carter as well I believe – and is written for soprano and accompanying two clarinets. Tony Arnold is well versed in crunchingly tough contemporary music and she negotiates her way through the convoluted lines with something approaching finesse. Babbitt colours and inflects and heightens certain words – listen to the setting of simple which is sung like a multiply compressed single word lullaby - or the way the clarinets anticipate with delicate beauty – there is beauty if brief here – the soprano’s line Cut flowers, lovely……….

Manifold Music (1995) for solo organ sounds like a rigorous six-minute workout for the hands – and the feet - and My Ends Are My Beginnings was written for the performer here, Allen Blustine who plays the clarinet and the bass clarinet with impeccable control. Admirable indeed is the speculative intensity he derives from the seemingly forbidding first Section of this three-movement piece. The Soli e Duettini for two guitars is fragmentary and allusive though not without its teasing flamenco moments.

The production is first class and the notes by Babbitt composition student Matthias Kriesberg are freewheeling and engagingly addictive.

Jonathan Woolf


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