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Milton BABBITT (b. 1916)
Soli e Duettini

Around the Horn (1993) [9:33]
Whirled Series (1987) [15:28]None But The Lonely Flute (1991) [06:12]
Homily (1987) [03:46]
Beaten Paths (1988) [04:38]
Play It Again, Sam (1989) [06:36]
Soli e Duettini (1989) [10:19]
Melismata (1982) [18:45]
The Group for Contemporary Music
rec. September 1994, March 1995, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, USA.
NAXOS 8.559259 [75:17]

 


The overall title of this disc is taken from one of the featured works and should serve as an indication to potential purchasers that they are not looking at a collection of ensemble pieces but, for the most part, pieces for one solo instrument. Milton Babbitt is one of those senior American composers whose work is often described as "challenging" – Elliott Carter, despite his classic status, is another – and this disc certainly provides challenges enough.

Around the Horn runs for about nine minutes in two movements of equal length. For horn solo, its punning title gives a clue to its character, the player required to explore all reaches of the horn compass, not only in terms of pitch but also in dynamics too. That said, there are mercifully few extraneous noises, the composer being content to write music which is exceptionally well fashioned for the instrument without seeking to create new sounds by innovative playing techniques. Given the exceptionally wide range of pitches used, however, this listener was surprised to find little variety in the piece, and drama seems not to be an important element either. There is no doubt, however, that the performance, by William Purvis, for whom the work was written, is definitive. This is playing of astonishing virtuosity aligned with a wonderful sound, brilliant where required, smooth as silk elsewhere, but never letting us forget that the horn is a brass instrument. Constant activity likewise characterises Whirled Series for alto saxophone and piano. Much is made in the accompanying notes of the variety of the writing, and whilst this is theoretically true – the extremes are both instruments are comprehensively explored, and the two instruments are rarely simultaneously involved in the same kind of musical activity – the effect seems to me quite the opposite, a constantly moving but featureless landscape. That said, I did sense the music moving towards its close, though the "45 seconds of exuberant running in place" mentioned in the booklet passed me by, I'm afraid. This is again stunning playing, though, from the saxophonist Martin Taylor and his colleague Charles Abramovic, and it would be fascinating to have their views on the work required to get this music into shape and the satisfaction resulting from it. The six minutes of None But The Lonely Flute follow a similar path, to the extent that it is difficult to describe this music without repeating oneself. "There are no major changes, no marked sections –" the notes report, "– just a long, long tune." Well, up to a point. A tune, almost by definition, has form of some kind. It leads the listener somewhere. Here, if this long monologue has any kind of form, if the phrases of the tune are weighted one against the other, if some reply to others, or engender others, well, none of this has revealed itself to me yet. Flautist Rachel Rudich deserves an award for skill and dedication. Alternating loud and soft strokes and the use of different qualities of beaters in each hand are techniques used both in the short piece for snare drum, Homily, and that for marimba, Beaten Paths. The result in the former is a strange, stammering effect, and in the latter, pretty much as in other pieces in the collection, a kind of ordered randomness, constantly moving but almost totally without drama or tension and with little real contrast. Peter Jarvis and Thomas Kolar play with the complete conviction we now expect from the musicians on this disc. A brief burst of pizzicato heralds the final bars of Play It Again, Sam, which is once again superbly played, in this case by violist Lois Martin. There seems, however, little reason why the notes which make up this piece are better suited to this instrument than any other. There is nothing of a string instrument's singing quality, to cite just one example, and though it may be argued that other aspects of the instrument's character are brought out, I can hear little difference between the nature of the music of this piece and that of the others on the disc. Whatever one thinks of the quality of the invention, this must surely be seen as a weakness. The notes describing this piece – referring to "bumptious registral discontinuity" and "almost incessant change in the rate of change" – finally cross the line into that kind of writing which, by its very particular use of language and imagery to try to evoke a piece of music, becomes unintelligible.

After almost an hour of this kind of music one longs for something approaching a singing line, but unfortunately it is not to be found in the flute and guitar duo Soli e Duettini either. On the contrary, the composer is at pains once again to exploit the extreme reaches of each instrument, often quickly juxtaposed as well as making sure once again that the two instruments never seem to be playing the same kind of music at any one time. As the title suggests, each instrument plays solo for some of the time – the flute alone opening and closing the piece, for example – and sometimes together. The playing, by Susan Palma-Nidel and guitarist David Starobin is astonishingly accomplished. Composed in 1982, the final work on the disc, Melismata for solo violin, is the earliest and, at almost nineteen minutes, the longest in duration. I have listened to this piece three times, and although there is a greater variety of incident and texture than is displayed in the other works on the disc I am still unable to perceive any real sense of direction or aural signposts, with the result that I never know what is coming next. Sadly, when what comes next is more of the same – howls of protest from Babbitt enthusiasts – these nineteen minutes seem very long indeed. The work is brilliantly dispatched by Curtis Macomber.

Another twentieth-century composer who has written extensively for solo instruments is of course Luciano Berio. The writing in many of his Sequenzas is far more experimental than here, but his masterly control of pace, variety of texture, humour and drama set his series of works in quite a different plane from these by Babbitt. (Babbitt's aims were no doubt totally different.) I wish I could respond more positively to this music, and am quite sure that many collectors will do so. They need have no fear about the quality of this disc, first issued in 1996 on the Koch label and reissued now in the Naxos American Classics series, as everything is stunningly delivered in superbly natural sound. I have made several references to the accompanying essay by Joseph Dubiel. He is a passionate advocate for the composer but I fear his words will be of little help to those trying to find a way into some very difficult music. 

William Hedley


 



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