String Quartet No. 1
Designs for Violin, Piano
Ursula Mamlok was born in Berlin in 1923, left Germany to escape the Nazis in 1939, and has resided once again in the city of her birth since 2006. In between, she spent her seminal years in the United States, absorbing the influences of her teachers (including Vittorio Giannini, Roger Sessions, Stefan Wolpe, and Ralph Shapey). She probably represents the purest example of a “modernism” of any composer whom I’ve reviewed lately. Since that fact is not calculated to endear her music to me, I feel a particular obligation to be fair and objective in the present review.
One immediately noticeable quality of Mamlok’s music is her terseness of expression. As a result of it, we have here on this compact disc seven major works by the composer, without straining the time limit of the medium. Another is her constant rhythmic, textural and registral variations and her manipulations in pitch, traits that keep the listener off-balance as she constantly seeks new combinations of elements. Finally, there is a nascent lyricism in her writing that is usually kept submerged under her other preoccupations. On this program, it finds partial expression in the Haiku Settings for soprano and flute, but is found most fully only in her early Woodwind Quintet of 1956. One also detects a fascination with musical games; the opening movements of String Quartet No. 1 (1962) and 2000 Notes are in the form of palindromes, while in Designs (1962) Mamlok experiments with the use of twelve tones in four basic rows.
A number of famous musicians contributed their talents to this program, a testimony to their esteem for the composer, so I will try to give then all credit. Pianist Garrick Ohlsson is solo performer in Notes 2000, whose four movements are realized in a mere 7:23. Only the first movement, Gruff, has any sort of expressive subtitle, the others having only metronomic markings. Brief bursts of activity resolved into sustained tones in the opening movement are succeeded by rapid, rhythmically irregular figures, melodic and chordal motifs (but not melodies) in the middle movements, and contrary motion octaves and a final fff cluster chord in the finale. This is “pure” music with a vengeance! As such, it places great stress on the artist in attempting to characterize it – if such can even be done. In Haiku Settings (1967), with soprano Tony Arnold and flutist Claire Chase, Mamlok attempts to convey sense impressions in many features of her writing for the flute, for instance the angular, asymmetrical shapes in the flute lines, set against the interval of a minor third in the vocal, suggest the gull rocking fitfully in the restless sea in “So cold are the waves.” Her virtuosic writing for the flute is in stark contrast to her mannered use of the voice, which is used comparably to the flute only in the last Haiku, “How cool the green hay smells.” In Designs (1962) violinist David Bowlin and pianist Jacob Greenberg wrestle with the pithy (5:48) work’s numerous configurations of pitch, rhythm and texture.
String Quartet No. 1(1962), which clocks in at a leisurely (for this composer) 9:59, absorbs the collective talents of the Daedalus Quartet, whole are often called upon to exercise high degrees of independence and individual virtuosity in dealing with the shifting patterns of Mamlok’s rhythmically fluid writing. In the opening of the second movement, a scherzo, the quartet members play wide-spanning figures at different speeds and with different articulations; in the trio section, viola and cello play cadenzas, prestissimo and fortissimo. All of this sounds more cerebral than engaging to my ears, although those listeners of a more “modernist” persuasion may think otherwise. Concertino for Wind Quintet, String Orchestra and Percussion (1987), with the Odense (Denmark) Symphony Orchestra under Scott Yoo, blends Mamlok’s neoclassical techniques with her modernist language. The four movements are entitled Energetic, Joyful, Elegy, and Playful. The composer employs her material in irregular phrases and rhythms, so it scarcely seems appropriate to term it “melodic.” The most convincing movement is the Elegy, its dark mood relieved somewhat by two virtuosic cadenzas for the wind instruments.
Concerto for Oboe and Chamber Orchestra (1976, rev. 2003) features the talents of oboist Heinz Holliger and the Ensemble SurPlus conducted by James Avery. The three movements – Spirited, Dirge, and Rondo – are played without a break. A feature of the opening movement is the brief, rhythmically free cadenzas for oboe, xylophone and harp. (In fact, the two percussionists in the group get quite a workout in this opus.) In the slow movement and the finale, the texture of the music is punctuated by the oboe’s multiphonics (which I assume accounts for the strangulated quality of the soloist’s tone, which elsewhere sounds more like the “duck & bagpipes” school of oboe playing than the singing tone of the Heinz Holliger we have been used to hearing.) Woodwind Quintet (1956), the earliest work on this program, was also the one I found most satisfying, not the least for a true lyricism that I found rare in the later works. The performance by the woodwind quintet Windscape is superb, especially when dealing with the swinging eighth-note figures and the rapid scalar passages and trills in the opening movement. The second movement, marked Andante tranquillo, is nocturnal in mood, characterized by a melismatic melody that passes through the ensemble. The finale, marked Allegro molto, is spirited, ending decisively in a brilliant coda.