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Viktor ULLMANN (1898-1944)
The Emperor of Atlantis (Der Kaiser von Atlantis) Op.49 (1943)
Libretto by Peter Klein. English Translation by Aaron Kramer
Kaiser Overall – Joseph Neal (baritone)
Der Lautsprecher (Loudspeaker) – Stuart Duke (bass)
Ein Soldat (A Soldier) – Roger Grow (tenor)
Harlekin (Harlequin) – Steven Goldstein (tenor)
Ein Mädchen (A Girl) – Ann Fitch (soprano)
Der Tod (Death) – Robert Osborne (bass)
Der Trommler (The Drummer) – Sandra Sliker (mezzo soprano)
Members of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra/Robert DeCormier
Recorded at Ira Allen Chapel, University of Vermont, Burlington, January 1996
ARABESQUE Z6681 [51.53]


Ullmann wrote Der Kaiser von Atlantis in Terezin. The allegorical opera was one of a large number of works the Schoenberg student composed in that holding and transit camp. Its survival was fortuitous, only receiving a premiere in Amsterdam in 1975. The most prestigious recording was the well-known Decca performance conducted by Lothar Zagrosek, with Walter Berry and Herbert Lippert amongst the cast members, an assignment taped in Leipzig. The subject is Death, right from the Asrael-derived four note motif that so haunted that magnificent Suk Symphony. The means of expression, the musical and prevalent influences, number Weill and Zemlinsky (Schoenberg’s brother-in-law who employed Ullmann as his operatic factotum and later assistant at the German Theatre in Prague). Alongside the Angel of Death motif runs Bachian Chorale – prominently and movingly Ein’ feste Burg, reminiscent in some ways of the Berg Violin Concerto. All these ingredients may seem inimical or contradictory; but they are welded into a performance of compressed parody and cynicism and ultimately hope. The German Anthem is subjected to parody as the Death-Hitler figure at the opera’s mad centre is introduced but Ullmann also faintly quotes Mahler as well; the two are compatibly conjoined in fierce and unremitting irony.

Given the limited orchestral and vocal forces available to him Ullmann employs them with considerable mastery; it was as if, in a further brittle irony, that his formerly unfocused musical direction could now, in such circumstances, be directed with clarity toward a more precise musico-dramatic object. The Vermont/DeCormier performance is one of a number devoted to their Terezin project, an admirable one, performed by an essentially non-professional cast and in English. As with Brundibár from the same team the immediacy of the translation is a distinct advantage. The thirteen members of the Vermont Orchestra take to the roles with vigour; they point up the Weill-influenced instrumentation of the recitative and duet No more. What Song was that? [No.4] as indeed the chorus sings the chorale that ends the work with touching and moving simplicity. The solo singers are right inside their roles and give dramatic credence to them; true, they don’t all rise to the level of the singers on the rival Zagrosek recording but that is not to compare like with like. This recording in some ways mirrors the kind of forces Ullmann would have had at his disposal (would because the work was never performed at Terezin) and generates a sense of touching immediacy. Though you must have the Zagrosek recording, this Arabesque disc would be an apt and moving ancillary purchase.

Jonathan Woolf


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