American Classics - Babbitt: Soli E Duettini

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BABBITT Around the Horn. 1 Whirled Series. 2 None but the lonely flute. 3 Homily. 4 Beaten Paths. 5 Play It Again, Sam. 6 Soli...

BABBITT Around the Horn. 1 Whirled Series. 2 None but the lonely flute. 3 Homily. 4 Beaten Paths. 5 Play It Again, Sam. 6 Soli e duettini. 7 Melismata 8 ? William Purvis (hn); 1,2 Marshall Taylor (a sax); 2 Charles Abramovic (pn); 2 Rachel Rudich (fl); 3 Peter Jarvis (snare dr); 4 Thomas Kolor (mmb); 5 Lois Martin (va); 6 Susan Palma (fl); 7 David Starobin (gtr); 7 Curtis Macomber (vn) 8 ? NAXOS 8.559259 (75:17)

Gratitude and plaudits are due to Naxos for reissuing the splendid series of American chamber-music discs originally released in the mid 1990s by Koch International Classics. So far, we have seen the return of Feldman?s String Quartet and mixed trios by Charles Wuorinen. One hopes Wolpe is waiting in the wings. Meanwhile, here is a group of remarkable instrumental works (one trio, one duo, and six solos) by Milton Babbitt, composed between 1982 and 1993. The New York-based Group for Contemporary Music is comprised of musicians whose playing is of such high quality it demands acknowledgement, so I?ve listed the soloists in the headnote.

Babbitt, 90 this year, was one of that group of serial or post-serial American composers who flourished from the late 1950s on. Their work is often dismissed as dense, intractable, and tuneless, especially from the vantage point of today?s nouveau accessibility?but once you broaden your idea of what constitutes a tune, you?ll find such criticisms miss the mark. (You?ll also find you can?t lump Babbitt, Wuorinen, Carter, Perle, and company together: any similarities are superficial.)

As a young man, the Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim was awarded a scholarship to study privately with Babbitt. The supposed incongruity of this pairing is sometimes remarked upon, until you realize that both composers approach the craft of composition in the same way: as a series of intricate puzzles to be solved. This is, I think, the key to Babbitt?s world. His work is high-wire, intellectual game playing and it exudes a bracing air of playfulness as it revels in the process. This music doesn?t relate to anything except itself; it is truly abstract (a term often used pejoratively to describe mid-20th century visual and graphic art). The bouts of twittering in the piano?s extreme upper register during the trio Whirled Series , for instance, have nothing to do with the avian realm, for all that they suggest a day in the life of Messiaen. They are simple (or complex) melodic fragments, sometimes the same ones heard simultaneously in the low saxophone part, only played at mach speed.

In the solo pieces, melodic lines are kept in balance by having the solo instrument make wide leaps from one register to another, thus achieving the effect (or, more accurately, solving the problem) of having simultaneous themes moving in counterpoint. The result may sound disjointed at first, but once you get comfortable with the technique it becomes clear and exciting. A good memory for pitch helps! I should mention to those unfamiliar with Babbitt?s idiom that this working-out of ideas is done nimbly and, above all, quickly: no endless drones or pregnant silences here, the ball is kept in the air at all times. In the duos, to quote the disc?s original review by Art Lange in Fanfare 20:2, ?the parts seldom seem related, until they do.? (Perfectly put! If you?re interested in this bargain reissue, look up Lange?s detailed commentary.) At such moments of synchronicity, the listener is deftly reminded that there is an omniscient intelligence at work organizing all this busy activity.

A notable feature of this disc is the sheer virtuosity Babbitt demands from his performers. William Purvis?s mastery of the horn?such an obstinate instrument in the wrong lips?is a wonder in itself, and that accolade may be applied to every one of these musicians. They shape and color each moment of this technically demanding music, and seem to be having almost as much fun as the composer.

The original Koch issue came on two CDs, one of which featured Babbitt reading his essay On Having Been and Still Being an American Composer . That set also contained Four Cavalier Settings for solo tenor. Those items have been dropped to squeeze the remaining works onto one CD, which in this case strikes me as a sensible way to go, not only for hip-pocket reasons but also because it brings together a succinct program of Babbitt?s instrumental chamber music. The sound is very good, performances are in a class of their own, and?as colleague Lange also pointed out?these pieces are among the composer?s most approachable.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott

Product Description:

  • Release Date: March 21, 2006

  • UPC: 636943925928

  • Catalog Number: 8559259

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Milton Babbitt

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Group for Contemporary Music

  • Performer: Charles Abramovic, Curtis Macomber, David Starobin, Lois Martin, Marshall Taylor, Peter Jarvis, Rachel Rudich, Susan Palma, Thomas Kolor, William Purvis


  1. Around the Horn

    Composer: Milton Babbitt

    Ensemble: Group for Contemporary Music

    Performer: William Purvis (French Horn)

  2. Whirled Series

    Composer: Milton Babbitt

    Performer: Charles Abramovic (Piano), Marshall Taylor (Alto Saxophone)

  3. None but the lonely flute

    Composer: Milton Babbitt

    Performer: Rachel Rudich (Flute)

  4. Homily

    Composer: Milton Babbitt

    Ensemble: Group for Contemporary Music

    Performer: Peter Jarvis (Snare Drum)

  5. Beaten Paths

    Composer: Milton Babbitt

    Ensemble: Group for Contemporary Music

    Performer: Thomas Kolor (Marimba)

  6. Play it Again, Sam

    Composer: Milton Babbitt

    Ensemble: Group for Contemporary Music

    Performer: Lois Martin (Viola)

  7. Soli e duettini

    Composer: Milton Babbitt

    Performer: Susan Palma (Flute), David Starobin (Guitar)

  8. Melismata

    Composer: Milton Babbitt

    Ensemble: Group for Contemporary Music

    Performer: Curtis Macomber (Violin)