Notes and Editorial Reviews
A tough and imaginative listen – relentless virtuosic demands.
This is Volume 2 in Bridge's series dedicated to the German-born American composer Ursula Mamlok. Volume 1 was released in 2009. Many of the same soloists feature on the current disc, which was presumably recorded at the same time.
The fact that there are 11 full works over 32 tracks, yet the CD still only lasts 62 minutes, indicates that Mamlok is not a composer to mince notes. More about her life and music can be found at her website.
Six of these works date back to the 1960s, with 'date' being the operative word in some cases.
Sculpture I for piano, for example, was composed in 1965, and sounds like it. An ephemeral study in colour and texture, it is very reminiscent of one of Stockhausen's shorter
Klavierstücke. The earliest work is the
Suite for Violin and Piano, only unearthed among Mamlok's manuscripts by Barry Wiener - who supplies the detailed liner-notes - in 2004, along with the
Two Bagatelles for String Quartet. Mamlok wrote the
Suite whilst studying twelve-tone technique under Stefan Wolpe - a fact which should tell anyone familiar with Wolpe's music what the
Suite sounds like. Webern-like in places, this is a jerky, uncompromising exploration, and, like a fair bit of Mamlok's music, not for those who need a good tune. On the other hand, its four movements are under four minutes long in total, so make a reasonable place for anyone to dip a toe in the chill waters of serialism.
A little easier on the ears are the
Two Bagatelles for String Quartet, finally premièred in 1994, the year before the
Suite. This is another twelve-tone work, but by this time Mamlok was studying with Gunther Schuller, and this piece has a slightly more approachable, tonal feel to it, like a burst of Janácek at his grittiest.
Polyphony I and
Sintra are from the end of the 1960s, and more hospitable ground for it.
Polyphony I for solo clarinet consists of four short movements, each pushing the instrument to its virtuosic limits in different ways. Trills and tremolos in the first section give way to palindromes in the second, interval leaping and an
ffff dynamic in the third, before fading into oblivion in the longer, more reflective finale. The alto flute in
Sintra performs similar kinds of razzle-dazzle, with a few downright unearthly sounds thrown in. Much use is made of dynamic leaps and sforzando, giving the work a fidgeting, noisy feel.
Tacked onto the end of the disc, in a tacked-onto-the-end kind of way, there is
Sonar Trajectory. Composed on magnetic tape in 1966, this work now sounds rather dated, with computer-generated beeps and whirrs and whooshes pulsating back and forth rather randomly between left and right channels.
The remaining five works come from a ten year period beginning in 1983 with
From My Garden, one of two pieces for solo violin. In this, incidentally the longest single movement of music by far on the disc, at six minutes,
Mamlok sets herself the unusual challenge of writing a tonal work using serial procedures for pitch and rhythm. Though again challenging music, both for listener and performer - at times soloist David Bowlin sounds like he has a bow in each hand - this is an ultimately satisfying, sometimes haunting work.
The other piece for solo violin is
a generally more energetic affair, though punctuated with quiet pizzicato, and overall sounding reflective and improvised, like a cadenza for a late 20th century violin concerto; one of the more readily approachable pieces.
The second work on the disc for solo piano is the ultra-brief
Love Song of Two Pigeons, which Mamlok wrote as a birthday present for her husband in 1991, but which was not premièred until last year. According to the notes, there is a fortissimo climax in octaves, but not in this performance by Gary Ohlsson.
Five Intermezzi for Guitar is probably the most accessible work on the disc, having a touch of the Villa-Lobos or Leo Brouwer about it. There are two very brief movements either side of the more substantial, but still only three and a half minute, central section.
Finally on this motley release, there is a vocal work,
Der Andreasgarten, for mezzo-soprano, flute and harp. This is a setting by Mamlok of a poem by her husband in German, a homage to the natural microcosm of the family garden in California. The opening section refers to the San Andreas faultline upon which the garden is situated, and which gives the poem its title. An old tree, morning dew, hummingbird, dragonfly, noon sun and doves provide material for the following sections, until the song ends as it starts, in
Sprechstimme, with a reference to the slumbering Andreas, and the mezzo's voice finally falling eerily into the earth. This is the profoundest work on the CD - still very modernist, hovering somewhere between impressionism and expressionism, but well worth the effort of a close listening two or three times over.
Unfortunately, Bridge's booklet provides no notes at all about the performers - rather meanly, considering the virtuosic demands Mamlok's music makes on them relentlessly. Claire Chase's alto flute, Allen Blustine's clarinet and David Bowlin's violin are all particularly commendable, as is Rebecca Jo Loeb's outstanding performance in
Der Andreasgarten, where she is equal throughout to Mamlok's very difficult music. And, unusually for an American, her German pronunciation is generally
As usual, Bridge's sound quality is excellent, with only the occasional minor deviation, to be expected when more than one recording location is used -
From My Garden, for example, has a bit of background hiss/hum.
-- Byzantion, MusicWeb International