Clarinet Quintets: Feldman, Babbitt

Clarinet Quintets: Feldman, Babbitt

When Morty met Milt
Morton Feldman
Milton Babbitt
Phoenix Ensemble
Mark Lieb
Aaron Boyd
Kristi Helberg
Cyrus Beroukhim
Alberto Parrini
Catalog Number: 
new classical
string quartet

New York, NY

Release Date: 
Dec 11, 2011
Liner Notes: 
1 CD
One Sheet: 

Chalk and cheese. Donkeys and elephants. Yin and yang. 

When you think of two American composers exhibiting extremes in method and aesthetics, 20th century giants Morton Feldman and Milton Babbitt are certainly a good example. There are no two men with more opposite views on music and expression. You might think therefore that listening to their music side by side would automatically turn off 50% of the audience. You�d be wrong. 

The New York based Phoenix Ensemble has paired Feldman's Clarinet and String Quartet and the world premiere recording of Babbitt's Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, and the result shows their deep musical connections. Each benefits from the other�s perspective on texture, color, and time-flow. 

Feldman's suspended transparency next to Babbitt's equally striking gnarliness complement one another, and provide a compelling case for the importance and influence of these composers to the American music scene in recent decades. 

The Phoenix Ensemble, with the approval and guidance of Mr. Babbitt, provides a first look into his largely unknown masterwork, and an equally enlightening performance of Feldman's poignantly expressive music. 


It would be hard to imagine two late twentieth century American masters of the avant-garde with more disparate aesthetics and approaches to composition than Morton Feldman and Milton Babbitt, so this pairing of pieces for the same ensemble, clarinet and string quartet, is especially intriguing. Feldman composed almost entirely intuitively and instinctively, and Babbitt works with mathematical logic within rigorously systematic parameters. They are alike in their philosophical basis for creating art, however; Feldman was, and Babbitt remains, utterly committed to a distinctive artistic vision, regardless of how extreme or off-putting the results might seem to average concert-goers. The performances here are impeccable. Clarinetist Mark Lieb and members of the New York-based Phoenix Ensemble play with absolute commitment; their care in putting each of these pieces over with the intent to sell listeners on each composer's work is evident in the energy and nuance of their performances. This is especially evident in the Babbitt, where the precision of intonation, rhythm, and ensemble, and the liveliness of phrasing and articulation make a strong case for what is admittedly a "difficult" work. It's tricky to ascribe a definitive interpretation to any performance of a Feldman piece, given the nature and intent of his writing and the number of choices he leaves open to his performers; it's always possible to imagine a performance that could be quieter than what one is listening to. These players do an excellent job, though, creating a beautiful blend and a delicate contrapuntal web that capture the atmospheric timelessness the composer strives for. Innova's sound is immaculate, with a life-like presence.

- Stephen Eddins, AllMusic Guide

Though Feldman's intuitive writing and Babbitt's meticulous approach originate from opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum, the resultant compositions share an otherworldly ambience not readily quantified on paper. The subtle unresolved dissonances in Feldman's "Clarinet and String Quartet" find common tonality with Babbitt's knotty "Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet."

Exuding somber tranquility, the Feldman piece ebbs with solemn grace. Drifting laconically between subtle themes and movements, it unveils a nuanced yet kaleidoscopic array of colors and tones. Unfolding less assertively than some of his more vigorous works, the Babbitt builds gradually, adding layers of interwoven counterpoint and shifting rhythms. A world premier recording, Lieb's clarinet follows the same model of lyrical restraint as the Feldman piece, never strident�seamlessly integrated into the sinuous fabric of the string quartet.

The Phoenix Ensemble's commitment to these works is implicit; their intonation, precision and palpable enthusiasm is conveyed in each measure. Despite the seeming stylistic disparity of the two works, the album flows effortlessly.

- Troy Collins, All About Jazz

What binds the two pieces, perhaps surprisingly, is the gestural richness they share beneath their very different surfaces, and the way each of them forges a rhetorical style free from the prescriptions of tonality. The performances, led by clarinetist Mark Lieb, are at once tender and incisive.

- Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle

Many new music folks would wholeheartedly agree that composers Morton Feldman and Milton Babbitt are, in meaningful ways, polar opposites. Yet their music, heard side-by-side here in performances by the prodigiously talented Phoenix Ensemble string quartet and clarinettist Mark Lieb, share unsuspected affinities. Babbitt's music, with its mathematical, scientific underpinnings and uncompromising cerebral nature, seems an odd choice to pair with the more intuitive, spacious, sometimes languorous music of Feldman, who was deeply effected by his visual art contemporaries. Feldman's "Clarinet and String Quartet" is filled with lush chordal voicing and beautiful, almost pastoral clarinet sections. The three-movement work makes for both a relaxing and uplifting listening experience. Babbitt's almost unknown "Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet" is much denser, brimming with angular clarinet lines and deliciously dissonant string parts, which interact with a ballet ensemble's grace. The ensemble's dynamics and careful attention to timbre balance make even the subtlest interactions clearly perceptible. New music this accessible is a treat. (Innova)

- Glen Hall, Exclaim!

If I were to describe the work as an indicator of the composer mellowing with age, it would be with the proviso that even Babbitt's take on mellowness will seem violently aggressive to most listeners. But it is a rewarding listen, the composer's ear for timbral and harmonic - or at least vertical - detail shines through in every bar. And there are surprises along the way, continually nudging the listener out of any sense of complacency at having fully digested a texture or contrapuntal construction. As with the Feldman, the formidable difficulties are expertly handled by the ensemble, which is fully attuned to Babbitt's musical methods, and whose performance here is apparently endorsed by the composer. This is the first commercial recording of the work, and should serve as an excellent benchmark for future performers.

- Gavin Dixon, MusicWeb International

In retrospect it’s clear that Buffalo was even more phenomenally lucky to have Morton Feldman’s long residence and new music advocacy here than it seemed at the time, which was lucky enough. It is Feldman’s Clarinet Quintet that has pride of place on this disc, and it is extraordinarily beautiful in that quiet, almost respiratory way that is unlike the music of anyone else (and that includes the composers who were his closest musical allies—John Cage, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown). Such minimal gesturing and low volume levels became haunting sonic environments.

- Jeff Simon, Buffalo News

The ways of beauty, however, we know, are endless: the charm of the music of Feldman's just the way it manages to combine these qualities so intriguing and mysteriously fascinating. A CD must for music lovers of the twentieth century.

- Filippo Focosi, Kathodik

... Babbitt's Quintet for Clarinet and Strings (1995-96), included on clarinetist Mark Lieb's disc with the Phoenix Ensemble, tacks another nail in the coffin of those who insist his music sounds tediously bureaucratic, like filling out your tax return, Au contraire: Babbitt's elegant contours- clarinet and string quartet lines thickly folded into each other at the opening, gradually becoming sparser, with reflective pockets of unaccompanied clarinet- radiates genteel yet incisive whimsy, and his pleasure at creating such delicate musical mechanisms expresses itself shamelessly.

- Philip Clark, Gramophone