“Heyyyyy, Babbittttt!” – Milton’s Vocal Works

FCR349 cover

BABBITT: The Widow’s Lament in Springtime. Sounds and Words. Phonemena (2 vers., w/piano & w/tape). A Solo Requiem.* In His Own Words. The Virginal Book. Pantun. Now Evening After Evening / Nina Berman, soprano; Steve Beck, pianist; *add Eric Huebner, pianist / New Focus Recordings FCR349

Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) was one of the luckiest modern American composer of his time because, despite the fact that he wrote extraordinarily complex modern music based on both the Schoenberg school and mathematical algorithms (he was also a mathematician), he gained such a huge reputation as a genius that women literally knocked his door down to date him, possibly hoping that he would (cough, cough) impart to them a child genius of their own.

And, unlike other very good modern American composers of his time (like Easley Blackwood, who as of this writing is still with us), his works continued to be hailed as products of genius and are still performed to this day. Personally, I’m not crazy about Babbitt’s instrumental works, nor am I generally a fan of any of his (or anyone else’s) electronic music, but he was clearly a brilliant composer and, for me, this comes out most clearly in his vocal works.

But just because Babbitt’s music is somewhat more accessible than his purely instrumental works, that doesn’t mean that they were written to appeal to the masses. They’re still atonal, though not always strictly 12-tone, and challenging for the listener. Thus you need performers who approach it as music and not necessarily as just an intellectual exercise. Babbitt was very lucky during his lifetime to have two excellent sopranos, Bethany Beardslee and Dora Ohrenstein, sing and record his music, and I am here to say that Nina Berman follows in their tradition. Aside from one flaw, and that is her enunciation which is only intermittently clear, she has a wonderful voice, both bright and full (in fact, a fuller tone than Beardslee had) in addition to a superb legato and first-rate musicianship. As to her diction problems, particularly in English, if Berman reads this review I would respectfully recommend that she listen very carefully to the recordings of British soprano Gwen Catley, whose diction was so clear even in her highest register (and Catley could ascend easily to the F or F# above high C) that not a single syllable was ever lost…and she did NOT over-enunciate. Catley’s recordings are, in my humble opinion, the greatest voice lesson for sopranos left to us on records. They should be required listening for every modern-day soprano regardless of fach or repertoire. the flaw that I hear in Berman’s singing is a tendency to “mush” the consonants and somewhat swallow the vowels. Always heed the instructions of the old Italian singing masters of the 18th century:


Thank you. And now, back to our regularly scheduled review.

Since Babbitt’s approach to writing was often the same, working with and around wide-leaping intervals—here mostly in the piano parts—there is a tendency in his music for each piece to sound much like (but not identical to) any other. This was his weakness. Even Berg and Schoenberg himself varied their approach more than Babbitt did. This is one reason why I can take his better music (mostly the vocal music) in small doses but not large ones. Incidentally, the same bad habit afflicted Pierre Boulez’ compositions as well. Babbitt was not alone in this failing. (I would also add that, despite its atonality, most of his music seems to have been written in or around the same basic “key area.”)

Thus I would recommend that the listener pause a couple of minutes between each piece on this CD (not necessarily , however, between individual movements of Du or the Solo Requiem) to let it all sink in before moving on. It will certainly help you appreciate the good things in Babbitt’s music, such as his surprisingly varied approach to rhythm in Phonemana, and in fact the second version with tape is somewhat different from the one with piano. (THIS is the kind of piece I’d like to hear a young soprano sing in an audition: it would immediately reveal not only the entire range of her voice, but also her musicianship, which is just as important.)

Also surprising is that Babbitt was actually able to create a somewhat tonal vocal line in his Solo Requiem which, divorced from the atonal accompaniment, would not sound all that strange to most ears. There’s also a fairly long and difficult piano piece in the third movement which is played very well by our two keyboardists, and the fifth movement bears a strong resemblance to Pierrot Lunaire. In the Requiem, Berman’s diction is a little clearer (but not so clear that you can make out every word), yet her vocal control is not as good, the voice having a slow flutter throughout.

In In His Own Words, Berman’s diction is very clear indeed, but this is not a sung piece but a Sprechstimme, which is entirely different. And a cute piece it is, too.

Taken in toto, this is an extremely good album, not to be missed by modern music aficionados and particularly by Babbitt fans. A shame he never wrote anything for Elvis Costello to sing. One would love to have seen a collaboration between Babbitt and Costello! (Just kidding!!)

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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