Classical CD Reviews

‘Music of Ursula Mamlok, Vol. 4’; Ensemble musicFabrik/Schlagquartett Köln/var. soloists (TrackList follows) – Bridge

Latest edition in an interesting series is still pretty heady stuff.

Published on June 26, 2013

‘Music of Ursula Mamlok, Vol. 4’; Ensemble musicFabrik/Schlagquartett Köln/var. soloists (TrackList follows) Bridge 9361A/B (2 CDs), 126:40 (4/9/13) [Distr. by Albany] ***:

As the press material from Bridge indicates, in celebration of Ursula Mamlok’s 90th Birthday (February 1, 2013) Bridge Records, in cooperation with Deutschlandrundfunk, released this two-disc retrospective recording of the German/American composer’s music. The music included spans 67 years of Ms. Mamlok’s compositional career, and incorporates performances by both American and German soloists and ensembles. Many of the works heard on these discs are recorded for the first time. The release of this recording coincides with celebrations in Germany and the premiere of a new documentary film about the composer’s life.

So who is Ursula Mamlok and what should the listener expect? I have been peripherally aware of her music for awhile now but this release prompted me to find out more. Mamlok was born as Ursula Meyer in Berlin and studied piano and composition with Gustav Ernest and Emily Weissgerber until her family fled Nazi Germany following the nationwide pogrom in 1938. Due to American immigration quotas, the family moved to Ecuador for a short time, finally immigrating to New York City in 1941. Mamlok became an American citizen in 1945. In New York Mamlok continued her musical studies under the direction of George Szell at the Mannes School of Music. Her American composition teachers include Vittorio Gianni, Roger Sessions and Ralph Shapey.

Of her own music, Mamlok has said, “My music is colorful, with the background of tonality – tonal centers … I can’t shake it completely”. She also has commented that “My main concern is that the music should convey the various emotions in it with clarity and conviction. It interests me to accomplish this with a minimum of material, transforming it in such multiple ways so as to give the impression of ever-new ideas that are like the flowers of a plant, all related yet each one different.”

I think that her own assessment is right on. Her music is complex, a bit thorny in places and fairly difficult to listen to once and immediately gravitate towards. There is also a tonal center lurking in the midst of her lines and harmonies but this is most assuredly not what most casual listeners would be able to discern. I find that her music is pretty indescribable; which is to say it defies categories and I think even a very learned listener would find it difficult to listen to and identify any of these works as a ‘Mamlok.’

That brings us to what I consider two essential questions. First, is there merit and are there things to admire here? Most assuredly. Ursula Mamlok is a highly skilled, well-trained and very creative composer. She has a very mathematical approach that actually does remind me of some of the work of her teachers, Ralph Shapey and Emily Weissgerber in particular.

Second, how does this music appeal to the “hard core” but non-academic contemporary classical listener? (I feel it goes without saying that people whose favorite music stops with Brahms, for example, will simply not like this) The answer is a mixed bag. What is most interesting here is that there is such a wide variety. For example, the charming Sonatina for two clarinets sounds vaguely like Milhaud and like nothing else in this collection. (This is also due to the fact that it was written in 1957 when she was under the influence of Giananini.)

The Four German Songs are also very interesting. Written in 1958 to texts by Herman Hesse, this small song cycle covers some intense thematic territory and is really quite atmospheric. For me, and maybe for most listeners, the ensemble works are the most enjoyable to listen to. Some of the solo works, such as the Aphorisms I and II or the Composition for solo cello are just a bit tough to get absorbed in. The Divertimento, the Variations and, my favorite, the Rhapsody are all very intriguing works that, of course, have timbral variety to follow.

All performances here are very good. The Ensemble musikFabrik is a very fine modern music ensemble and many of the solo performances are topnotch; especially baritone Jesse Blumberg and cellist Jakob Spahn.

Bridge is to be commended for once again promoting and providing good recordings of important twentieth century and beyond music. Surely, the music of Ursula Mamlok is not “mass appeal” in its intent or focus. I do think there are some works here almost anyone would find interesting (most probably the Rhapsody). Generally, this is pretty abstract and cerebral music by a most unusual, highly creative maverick whose music does deserve to be heard.


Disc A:

  1. Rotations – cello & piano
  2. Two pieces for piano
  3. Four German Songs
  4. Aphorisms I – solo violin
  5. Aphorisms II – two clarinets
  6. Composition for Cello
  7. Three Bagatelles – piano
  8. Grasshoppers – piano
  9. Three Part Fugue in A – piano

Disc B:

  1. Sonatina – two clarinets
  2. Rhapsody – clarinet, viola & piano
  3. Concert Piece for 4 – mixed ensemble
  4. Movements – mixed ensemble
  5. Divertimento – mixed ensemble
  6. Variations and Interludes – string quartet
  7. Concerto for oboe, two pianos and percussion

—Daniel Coombs

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