by Alex Ross
New York Times, Oct. 16, 1996
Milton Babbitt's Clarinet Quintet, which the Juilliard Quartet introduced at its 50th anniversary concert on Friday night at the Juilliard Theater, is a delight to the senses, a fast flow of lovely chords and spry rhythms, a thing of sweetness and light. It would be wrong to say that the grand seigneur of Serialism has given in to nostalgia or neo-Romantic regression; this new piece makes no obvious break with the mathematical procedures Mr. Babbitt has used since the late 1940's. But he has become generous, toward tradition and toward his listeners.
Beginning with Schoenberg himself, composers have manipulated the ostensibly atonal 12-tone system to produce common chords and other tonal elements. Mr. Babbitt never actively pursued that agenda, but neither did he maximize dissonance for its own sake. The hallmark of his writing has always been contrapuntal grace: no matter how complex his underlying processes, he has avoided cluttering any one page with too much information.
Perhaps the remarkable euphony of the new quintet is a sublime accident, but it's hard to escape the sense that the composer has stacked his Serialist deck in favor of triads and open intervals. The clarinet's first notes are a shuffling of the first five notes of the D major scale. Although that tonality is too scattered to take hold, the cello soon finds itself somewhere near E or B, with the other instruments adding friendly sharps. There are also rising fourths everywhere; various lines seem to jog up and down the circle of fifths (the sequence of intervals that touches all 12 notes in turn).
Over one extended movement, the teasing tonal dance goes on. A triad hovers, then vanishes into a lovely haze of ambiguous notes. It's as if Mr. Babbitt has looked back to the period just before the atonal revolution, to the slippery harmony employed by the young Schoenberg, by Reger, even by Strauss. All those open intervals, meanwhile, produced a vaguely American sound, oddly Coplandesque; one four-note motive could be a nod to Ned Rorem.
These are intriguing details. The main emphasis, as always, is on the delicate interplay of parts, rhythmic actions and reactions. An easy, rambling gait predominates. Slower sections function as lyric interludes: rich sustained chords are pushed along by scattered pulses or intensifying tremolos. Big upward leaps at the end give a sense of closure. An amazing piece, beautiful and formidable at once.
Charles Neidich played the clarinet part with effortless fluency. The remainder of the program, Mozart's Quartet in G (K. 387) and Schoenberg's First Quartet, brought strong, intellectually engaged interpretations whose patches of rough intonation were distracting only in passing. That's short shrift, but the current season will offer other occasions to appreciate this great ensemble. Ever devoted to contemporary music, the Juilliard upstaged its own anniversary by adding a fresh masterwork to the repertory.