Apr/May 2002

m a k i n g   t i m e


with Don Mager

Vintage Vienna

Mamlok, Ursula. Constellations for orchestra (1993),
Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Gerard Schwartz, conductor.
Polarities for flute, violin, cello and piano (1995).
Parnassus Ensemble. Anthony Korf, conductor.
Der Andreas Garten (1987). The Jubal Trio: Christine Schadeberg, soprano;
Sue An Kahn, flute; Susan Jolle, Harp.
Gírasol for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano (1990).
Parnassus Ensemble. Anthony Korf, conductor.
String Quartet No.2 (1998). Cassatt String Quartet.
New York: CRI 806 (1999)


When I began my journey as a passionate listener of new music as a teenager in the late 50s, recordings of the giants of the so-called Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern) were just beginning to be distributed by major companies. One could only speculate from reading about many a seminal work how it might sound. I remember well a friend and I often asked whether in our lifetimes we would hear Schoenberg's Moses und Aaron or Berg's Lulu. How the world of listening has changed!

Now not only have the oeuvres of those three composers been available in recordings for a generation, many works have multiple contenders among superb performances; furthermore, the Viennese triumvirate's international followers have entered the recorded repertoire in substantial ways (Wolpe and Krenek (Germany/USA); Sessions (USA), Skalkottas (Greece), Valen (Norway), Gerhard (Spain/England), late Stravinsky (USA) etc.). In the wake of subsequent movements (total serialism, neo-romanticism, electronic expressionism, minimalism and various kinds of eclecticisms), the Second Viennese movement looks more and more like a bygone moment of musical synthesis and astonishing achievement, not unlike the first Viennese moment centered on Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. Like the first, the second Viennese moment feels irretrievable and distant. And like that earlier moment of astonishing synthesis, the Second Viennese tradition seems to define a mark against which the remainder of its century's composers measure themselves.

Back in the 1950s, during the first recorded flush of this music, I was engulfed by what was new and never-before heard. I struggled to orient my ears inside sound worlds that at times seemed so impenetrable that reactions of comfortableness, clarity, recognition—much less of nostalgia—seemed impossible, unlikely, and probably inappropriate. How my world of listening has changed!

Ursula Mamlok was born in Berlin in 1928 but because of the persecution of Jews in Germany, arrived as a teenager in the USA in 1941. Her musical training proceeded with work under the tutelage of George Szell, Stefan Wolpe, Roger Sessions and others. After a spate of works in the 1960s and 70s characterized by dramatic and expansive expressionism, her later career has sought economy and formal precision. The works on this disk represent her most recent decade of productivity.

In honing an economical and formally precise idiom for works that engross and hold listeners' attention and deliver sustained emotional jolts, in effect, Mamlok has recreated a "Second Viennese sound." Like that early 20th century moment of synthesis, Mamlok creates works of terse materials distinguished by arching motifs and rows, clear polyphonic lines, resplendent but unmuddied harmonies, and formal arguments of great elegance. These works are a pure delight to hear and rehear.

The songs of Der Andreas Garten (to poems by her husband Gerard Mamlok) are my least favorite, probably due to a banality to the texts and a soprano whose voice has a slightly shrill edge to it.

The four short movements (less than 15 minutes) of Constellations, however, span an aural journey almost as vast as its title. The orchestra is large, but it is treated as groups of almost chamber ensemble colorations, kaleidoscopically erupting out of each other. At natural volume this music dazzles. The third movement called "tranquil" has arching 3 and 4 note motifs that continuously move around the sections of the orchestra in fascinating arrays of color—I most typed the word "light" instead of "color"—which would have been precisely right; for, "lucidity" in it fullest meaning and richest connotations best describes Mamlok's pieces on this disk. The sound is as if the musical sounds themselves are infused with light.

Motivic lucidity also directs the arguments of the chamber works, Polarities, Gírasol, and String Quartet No.2. Compression of time, economy of means, and lucidity of musical ideas makes each of the works stand out as authentic and completely fulfilled within its own promise. But the String Quartet No.2 stands above the others. The slow descending scale motive of the central "Larghetto" movement with the surrounding cello eruptions and violin pizzicatos sustain an elegant poise combined with a pathos of restrained emotional depth. This movement is surrounded by two contrasting lively movement. The entire quartet has the vintage qualities of a long loved favorite and the freshness of a new encounter.

As a listener for whom the sound worlds of the late 50s and 60s shocked, shook, and even alarmed, with their seductive energy and engrossing impenetrabilities, to have those worlds come back some 40 years later in the astonishing guise of vintage friends, plots one listener's intriguing journey indeed. As realized by a composer of Mamlok's mastery, those sound worlds oddly even evoke nostalgia. How the worlds of our listening do change!


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