The story of Viktor Ullmann is becoming more
familiar to us. From the mid-nineties, up until today, we have
witnessed increased interest in his music, with his best known
work, "Der Kaiser von Atlantis" (The Emperor
of Atlantis) being staged on both sides of the Atlantic, specifically
by conductor James Conlon, in the U.S.
Viktor Ullmann was born in Bohemia, in Teschen
(now Poland). After spending his youth in Vienna, he joined the
army, returning from war in 1916. He enrolled in Arnold Schoenberg’s
composition class, studying with him for a little over eight months.
Ullmann then moved to Prague where he worked as an assistant to
Alexander von Zemlinsky at the German theatre. It was under Zemlinsky’s
direction that his style as a composer crystallized: a fascinating
middle ground between Schoenberg and Zemlinsky, with a very free
tonal language, making use of polytonality, and yes, sometimes
atonality. The result is extremely original, appealing to both
modernists and traditionalists alike. From this period, the major
work seems to be the "Seven Songs for Orchestra",
Op. 7, now unfortunately lost.
In 1931, after conducting in Aussig and Zurich,
Ullmann decided to take over an anthroposophical (beliefs he adopted
while in Zurich) book shop in Stuttgart. He effectively stopped
composing during this period. The rise of the Third Reich forced
him to move back to Prague in 1933. He then resumed composition.
The most notable work of this period is the opera "Der
Sturz des Antichrist", a fascinatingly Wagnerian drama,
based on an anthroposophical text. Musically, it is an extremely
dense work, where influences of Mahler, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg
and even Debussy collide to form the now recognizable Ullmann
The long hand of the Third Reich finally caught
up with Ullmann in Prague. After being denied visas by Switzerland
and the U.S.A., Ullmann had no choice but to return to Prague
and endure the conditions imposed by the Nazi occupation. He was
eventually interned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Ullmann left all of his scores behind, choosing instead, to take
blank music paper.
Paradoxically, this marked the beginning of Ullmann’s
most prolific period. He composed most of his surviving output
there, in addition to conducting, writing and teaching. Along
with composers Pavel Haas and Hans Krasa, he worked under the
mantle of the Freizeitgestaltung (Administration for free
time activities), designed to showcase Theresienstadt as a model
ghetto and proof of Hitler’s "good" treatment of Jewish
It was in Theresienstadt where Ullmann composed
the opera "Der Kaiser von Atlantis" Op. 49, based
on a text by fellow inmate, painter and poet Peter Kien. The Emperor
portrayed in the opera, a bellicose leader with no regard to the
life of his subjects, is in fact a very thinly disguised Adolf
Hitler. Death goes on strike with disastrous consequences, agreeing
to go back to work only after the emperor agrees to be his first
victim. The opera actually went into rehearsal, but it was never
staged. Camp authorities realized the meaning of the production,
cancelling the premiere days before it was supposed to happen.
Viktor Ullmann was transferred to Auschwitz, where he perished
in the gas chambers within two days of arrival. Before being sent
to the death camp, he was able to entrust all of his scores to
a friend in the camp. They were miraculously preserved, so, in
fact, all we have of Viktor Ullmann’s works is his Theresienstadt
output, while most of what he wrote before is now lost.
James Conlon, whose Zemlinsky advocacy resulted
in a series of very worthy releases for EMI, is now turning his
attention to Ullmann, whose music he found while researching the
life and works of Zemlinsky. He has already conducted a staging
of Kaiser in the U.S.A. and now has turned his attention
to Ullmann’s orchestral output.
All the works in this release were originally
presented as either piano or short scores. However, the Piano
Sonatas 5 and 7 had many indications of orchestration ideas, which
suggest that they started out as Symphonies No. 1 and 2. Ullmann
decided to use the smaller form, since a symphony had little chance
of being properly performed at Theresienstadt. In my opinion,
most of Symphonies No. 1 and 2 are bit too sparsely orchestrated
by Bernhard Wulff for my taste. Antichrist, Kaiser
and other works suggest a much denser orchestral style. In fact,
while this is not indicated in the external info, the booklet
tells us that the Six Songs were originally scored for piano and
orchestrated by composer Geert van Keulen for chamber ensemble.
This is, in my opinion a more successful orchestration, more consistent
with Ullmann’s style.
The first work presented in the CD is the Symphony
No. 2. The first movement, marked Allegro, is a very airy, Haydn-esque
piece played with confidence by the Kölner Philharmoniker.
The instrumentation includes unusual support from the harpsichord,
a choice no doubt influenced by Ullmann’s use of it in Kaiser.
In this movement, the strings are recessed in the soundstage,
which makes the woodwinds sound very prominent, to good effect
though, since they play a big part in the development. Conlon
provides a good, unrushed pace, resisting the temptation of overdoing
the Classicist connection.
The second movement is a Mahlerian march. Again,
the sound engineer made the choice of somewhat recessing the strings.
Still, they sound rich and powerful, a characteristic of this
orchestra also evident in Conlon’s Zemlinsky EMI recordings. The
cello has a couple of prominent parts that are handled with confidence
by the soloist. The movement finishes with a mysterious, Brucknerian
fanfare with support from the harpsichord.
The third movement is a very beautiful adagio,
where the Schoenberg influences come to the fore. The piece is
very tonally ambiguous. This time, the strings take centre stage,
now properly placed in the soundstage. This Mahlerian adagio picks
up the pace in the middle section, very much in the style of Webern’s
Passacaglia. Conlon does a great job with the orchestral balances,
not letting the powerful and clear brass overwhelm the very important
lines assigned to the woodwinds and solo violin. Close to the
end of the movement, the piece becomes atonal, not only affirming
the Schoenbergian ideas, but giving the finale an unsettling feeling,
no doubt mirroring the terror and uncertainty of life in the ghetto.
The key to the successful interpretation of this type of piece
is to let the richness of the music emerge, without letting it
drag, otherwise it becomes just a wall of string sound. Conlon
does it very well.
The fourth movement is full of Ländler-type
rhythms, with very forward brass. This is a rhythmically difficult
piece, executed with aplomb and precision by the orchestra.
The final movement, "Variations on a Jewish
theme" is the jewel of the symphony. After stating the main
theme, a set of extremely lyrical and beautiful variations are
presented. The poignancy of the melodies is sometimes overwhelming,
causing the mind to remember where this music was composed and
the conditions under which human beings, including the composer
had to live. After that, a scherzo is introduced, with Conlon
handling the transition well. This big and affirmative ending
suggests the existence of hope, as a source of strength against
the horrors of ghetto life.
The Six Songs for soprano and chamber ensemble
are, in my opinion, better orchestrated from the piano originals.
The orchestration is dense, more consistent with the style shown
by Ullmann in Antichrist, Kaiser and the Theresienstadt
string quartets. The style could be described as oscillating between
Berg’s Seven Early Songs and the Altenberg Lieder.
Songs 1 and 2 are lyrical, introspective pieces, while 3 and 4
are more Mahlerian. They are very well handled by Banse, who has
a very secure top and a richly expressive voice.
The overture "Don Quixote tanzt Fandango"
is, like the songs, orchestrated in a rich style, very reminiscent
of the Gurrelieder. The piece starts slowly, with prominent
parts for solo violin. These are played proficiently, although
somewhat coldly. Then, as the name suggests, it turns into a highly
dramatic dance piece, with great support from a percussion section
that includes castanets. Here, Conlon relishes the dance element,
accentuating the rhythms and maintaining a very appropriate pace.
The result is a very enjoyable performance.
The last work on the CD is the Symphony No.1,
after the Sonata for piano No. 5. This suffers from the same sparse
orchestration as the Symphony No. 2. The first movement, an Allegro,
has a Viennese waltz mood and is played with gusto by the orchestra.
This is light music with a very serious streak. The next movement,
the Nocturne Andante, is slow and lyrical, with Conlon, once again,
doing a great job of balancing the strings and woodwind, the main
elements in the piece. The Toccatina is an extremely short (49
seconds), minuet type piece that is mostly brass, percussion and
woodwinds. The Serenade is reminiscent of the Nachtmusik II in
Mahler’s 7th, with similarly prominent parts for harp.
The last movement, Finale fugato, is a lively march that sounds
as if it might have been what Mahler would have produced if he
had tried to imitate Alban Berg. Again, the woodwinds and brass
of the Philharmoniker shine in this piece.
In general, James Conlon does a wonderful job
with the music. He does not try to force it into the avant-garde.
Instead he shows Ullmann in his true colours: a late-romantic
as greatly influenced by the works of the Second Viennese School
as he was by Zemlinsky and Mahler.
The recording is typical of Capriccio: clear,
spacious, clean and bright, a bit lacking in the low-end, although
this is not a big problem. Notes and texts are provided in German,
English and French.
In conclusion, a great recording; my disagreement
with the orchestration choices in the two symphonies notwithstanding.
This is in fact a good introduction to Ullmann, showing us several
facets of his work.