Ullmann: Complete Piano Sonatas / Golan

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Viktor Ullmann was a victim of the Holocaust but before that he had been a leading and in some ways a radical European composer. After 1945 his music disappeared without trace. I remember well the thrilling discovery, in the 1990s, of his work and of that of some of his Jewish colleagues who also died so tragically. I had not heard of them or of their music which seems to reflect a meeting of the minds of Janá?ek and Schoenberg. As the years have marched on these figures have attained even more significant and have attracted more recordings.
I have occasionally wondered if Ullmann’s complete piano sonatas might appear together. Some have been recorded separately but this recording is of special interest and helps to fill a gap in our knowledge of the very important pre-war period.

The second movement of the First Sonata was composed, according to Jeanne Golan’s booklet notes, for the 25 th anniversary of Mahler’s death. More especially it was also written in the year that Alban Berg died. Its tonally-orientated chromatic language brought Berg’s Sonata of 1908 to mind. Another connection is that Ullmann was a Schoenberg pupil, which explains some of the complex counterpoint in the first movement and in later works. Like the succeeding three sonatas it is in three movements. There’s a Molto agitato, which has a sonata-form feel, then a curious Funeral march over a stuttery pedal point - this in memory of Mahler - and finally a short Presto. What we have here is a classically-orientated form in modern clothes.
Golan has taken an especial interest in this composer and plays his music wherever possible. She writes about meeting a pianist - Alice Sommer, aged 108 - who reminisced with her about Viktor Ullmann. Sommer recounted that the middle movement of the Second Sonata uses a then well-known Czech folksong. As Ullmann acknowledged this song was also employed by Janá?ek. To me it is incongruously set amidst a first movement plagued with a disturbed, emotional ambivalence. There’s also a somewhat ‘rollicking’ compound-time finale marked Prestisssimo which feels a little slower in this performance. At present I find this rather eclectic sonata less than convincing.
The Third Sonata written only one year later moves us forward again. I’ve noted that the First sonata had a Mahler movement and the Second a folk-song/Janá?ek segment. The Third has, as a finale a theme and variations concluding with a fugue on a simple child-like tune by Mozart. This comes as something of a shock in that the first movement, although not atonal as Jeanne Golan suggests in her notes, is certainly free in its tonal ambiguities. The second movement is a rather pokey little Scherzo in search of a key. Yet the Sonata, although eclectic is not as stylistically disparate as the Second. The Mozart theme is subjected to a wide-range of treatments seemingly covering all twentieth-century musical styles but it evinces a greater sense of cohesion with the rest of the work.
I haven’t as yet mentioned counterpoint which is an Ullmann feature. The Fourth Sonata - the longest so far - has two contrasting fugues. The notes tell us that “much of the sonata recalls Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. In so far as Ullmann’s middle movement is a slow, quiet fugue I agree, but the finale is a tour de force of three fugal subjects subjected to vigorous treatment allowing for an exciting climax. The opening movement reminded me of Gideon Klein’s 1943 Sonata in its spiky language. Both Klein and Ullmann were to get to know each other very well in the year or so after this 4 th Sonata; both were dispatched to Theresienstadt (Terezin). It was there that Ullmann wrote his remaining sonatas.
The back of the CD case quotes Ullmann’s own words found in his 1944 book Goethe and Ghetto - a great title that - in which he says, almost shockingly, that at Theresienstadt he had “bloomed in musical growth and not felt myself inhibited … by no means did we sit weeping on the banks of Babylon”. I can well believe this when I hear much of the Fifth Sonata. It begins with a Beethovenian idea and although a little episodic it is quite fun and witty. The work is dedicated to his wife Elizabeth who had just died in the camp. The second movement is a lonely Andante, which I found most moving. Its mood is soon squashed by a brief and eccentric Toccatina. This is a five movement piece: a pattern which, in her somewhat odd notes, Golan says Schoenberg investigated; I can’t quite find out where. Ullmann now gives us a little Serenade which again I find episodic. Its fantasy-like form is excitable and full of life. The finale is, as in the previous sonata, a fugue but not an especially memorable one. I find this odd and disquieting but also one madly compelling. You can hear this work in a reconstruction by Bernhard Wulff as Ullmann’s Symphony No.1 on Glossa 922208.
This Sonata might have had another movement had Ullmann not withdrawn it and inserted an orchestral version of it in his opera Kaiser von Atlantis. It appears as a Menuett - subtitled Totentanz - which is included as an addendum on CD 2. It is nothing like Liszt and although it’s a march a “mixture of the cabaret and the macabre” in this performance seems to be thoughtful - even a little melancholy.
The Sixth Sonata, written in the same year, is the first to be in four movements. Golan’s notes describe it as “infused with language of Gershwin”. If she is referring to that composer’s Three Preludes then I vaguely agree, especially in the first movement. That said, a few jazzy elements can clearly be detected alongside added sixths and a profusion of syncopated rhythms. It is difficult to pin down a real influence. This is a very approachable work but, and I had no score, it seems to be a beast of a challenge for the pianist. The third and fourth movements have an enormous number of technical and musical challenges. These are wonderfully surmounted by Golan who makes the Sixth Sonata, and indeed each of the sonatas seem so effortless.
The Seventh Sonata has a valedictory ‘signature’. It was Ullmann’s last work before being transported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. As the five-movement sonata progresses (the longest in this set) a threatening mood begins to emerge. The first movement, marked Allegro, is rather even-tempered and pleasing. The following March has an uncertain and at times sinister air. In the Adagio a sense of quiet hopelessness appears. The following Scherzo never settles down; in fact it quotes a passage from a musical, which, apparently Ullmann had conducted a decade previously. This was no doubt a memory of happier times. A sense of the inevitable haunts the finale, another set of variations, this time on a Yiddish theme. It is treated affectionately and culminates in a fine fugue, the best in the set, on three ideas. These involve a Hussite patriotic tune, a Lutheran chorale and the BACH motif. A triumphant ending, overcoming all odds, is attempted but perhaps inevitably fails to convince. Ultimately this is a significant and troubling work that was again reconstructed into a symphony by Bernhard Wulff in 1989 - perhaps as Ullmann had intended.
Golan’s notes are excellent in terms of talking about the composer but rather brief and at times baffling when it comes to the sonatas. It is wonderful that she plays this music so convincingly and if smiling through adversity is a virtue and pursuing the creative flame through every vicissitude is recognized as an aspect of genius, then Viktor Ullmann deserves to be performed regularly. He is a fascinating figure but one who was unfulfilled and whose greatest works died with his imagination in the Holocaust.
-- Gary Higginson , MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: STNS30014

  • UPC: 034062300143

  • Label: Steinway & Sons

  • Composer: Viktor Ullmann

  • Performer: Jeanne Golan