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
(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.