Classical CD Reviews

URSULA MAMLOK: Various Chamber Works – Bridge

For serialists only…maybe.

Published on September 3, 2011

URSULA MAMLOK: Various Chamber Works – Bridge

URSULA MAMLOK: Sintra; Polyphony 1; Wild Flowers; Der Andreasgarten; Sculpture 1; Love Song of Two Pigeons; 5 intermezzi; 2 Bagatelles; From My Garden; Suite; Sonar Trajectory – Claire Chase, alto flute/ David Eggar, cello/ Allen Blustine, clarinet/ David Bowlin, violin/ Rebecca Jo Loeb, mezzo-soprano/ Tara Helen O’Connor, flute/ June Han, harp/ Garrick Ohlsson, piano/ Daniel Lippel, guitar/ Jacob Greenburg, piano/ Daedalus Quartet – Bridge 9293, 62:02 [Distr. Albany] ****:

Those reading this review should definitely look to the headnote—this is serial music, at least most of it, and for those allergic to this sort of thing, have your adrenaline pack ready. Okay, so what is serialism? One common definition is “a method or technique of composition that uses a series of values to manipulate different musical elements.” Schoenberg of course started it all with his twelve-tone method of composition whereas all the notes of the chromatic scale had to be used in sequence before they could repeat, and then they had to repeat in order, though rhythms and octaves and other sorts of coloring could take place according to the whim of the composer. Alban Berg used this as a premise but was not so strict about it (user-friendly serialism) while Anton Webern started down the road of the strictest usage whereby not only the tone row was serial, but other aspects of the composition as well, like rhythm and various mathematic sets within duration, dynamics, and register. Pierre Boulez managed a very rigorous serialist approach in his early works in the 1950s.

This is Volume 2 of what looks like a series that Bridge is undertaking in behalf of Ursula Mamlok, a composer new to me—and she is 88—but very worthwhile in getting to know. The music is strictly twelve-tone, but she brings an intense human element to it that has often been lacking  in the work of lesser and sometimes academic composers. Her pieces are brief for the most part—the longest work here is the 15-minute song cycle Der Andreasgarten, a beautiful collection of songs with texts by her late husband regarding their life living on the San Andreas Fault. The shortest is the Love Song of Two Pigeons, also connected to her husband as a celebration of his birthday, and smartly played by Garrick Ohlsson, who plays everything he touches exceedingly well.

Much of the work is for one instrumentalist, and one of the things that I noticed is how well the writing conveys the illusion of multiple instruments even when only one is present. This is music that is well thought out, and is jam-packed with expressive devices on each note, none of which is wasted. The performances are all excellent, and the sound up to the best Bridge standards. This is not music I will listen to all the time, but when I do I know that I will be hearing new things in it for a long time to come. Don’t let the serialism label scare you—that is for your information only. Those with open ears and a willingness to probe a little more deeply than the norm will find wonderful things here to be discovered. Mamlok, by the way, now lives in her hometown Berlin, where she was forced to flee in 1939, and is a professor emerita at the Manhattan School of Music, where she studied upon her arrival in the United States.

—Steven Ritter




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