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Viktor ULLMAN (1898-1944)
Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis or the Denial of Death) Op. 49 (1943) a music piece in one act to words by Peter Kien (1919-1944?) [49.49]
Three alternative scenes: Trommlers aria; Dialog (Overall, Tod); Der Kaisers Abschied (Overall). [8.16]
Kaiser Overall - Stephen Swanson (bar)
Der Lautsprecher - Rupert Bergmann (bass)
Ein Soldat/Harlekin - Johannes Strasser (ten)
Bubikopf; Ein Soldat; Ein Madchen - Stefani Kahl (sop)
Der Tod - Krassimir Tassev (bass)
Der Trommler - Ingrid Niedermayr (mezzo)
Ensemble Kreativ/Alexander Drčar

Herbert Gantschacher (artistic director)
rec. Klagenfurt, Jan 1995, DDD
A Production of ARBOS - Gesellschaft für Musik und Theater
World premiere recording of the original version in original instrumentation. The Decca Entartete version made in February 1993 is of a version using an expanded orchestra.
STUDIO MATOUŠ MK 0022-2 631 [58.05]



Viktor Ullmann was born in Teschen, a town now on the Polish-Czech border. He served in the Austrian army during the Great War. In 1919 he resumed studies with Schoenberg who thought well enough of him to recommend him to that moghul of Czech musical life in the 1920s, Alexander Zemlinsky. As a result Ullmann became répétiteur at the Neues Deutsches Theater in Prague. Like Zemlinsky Ullmann was an admirer of Mahler. On Zemlinsky's departure for Berlin in 1927 Ullmann became music director at the theatre of the North Bohemian town of Ustí nad Labem. There, his own man at last, he mounted various adventurous productions including Křenek's Jonny Spielt Auf. His audacity was too much for Usti and soon he was on his way again. He worked for several years at the Goethe bookshop in Stuttgart but the rise of Hitler brought that to an end and he returned to Prague. He was active in Prague's German community and became increasingly impressed by Berg's softer approach to the twelve-tone method. Along with Pavel Haas, Hans Krása and Gideon Klein he found himself in Terezin concentration camp in 1942. There he met his librettist, the painter and poet, Peter Kien. Together they produced the present opera with the whole work scored for seven singers and thirteen instruments including alto sax, harmonium, harpsichord and banjo. He also wrote a string quartet, songs and three piano sonatas while in Terezin. He was killed in Auschwitz on 18 October 1944. Auschwitz was the camp in which Kien was also murdered.

What of the plot? Lautsprecher introduces the characters. Harlekin and Death bewail the fact that life and death have ceased to have meaning. The Trommler (drummer sung by a woman) calls out the Emperor's declaration of war and tries to lure Death into working with the Emperor's forces. The Emperor (Der Kaiser, Overall) is seen alone in his Palace directing his campaigns by phone. A strange virus spreads and although many are wounded none can die. A soldier and girl from opposite sides meet on the battlefield and unable to kill each other fall in love. The Trommler tries to seduce the soldier from his new love but he will have none of it. The Emperor, still isolated, stares in the mirror and sees Death over his shoulder. Death will allow people to die if the Emperor will be his first victim. The Emperor in resignation walks off in Death's embracing power.

The music has no languors and the plot and sharply defined musical characterisation proceeds apace at all times. The narrative flow has the same vigorous élan and refreshing individuality as Prokofiev's operas Semyon Kotko and The Story of a Real Man: a large number of concise cinematic scenes dissolved one into the other with tireless inevitability.

The musical mix is a strong one. In these pages there are moments of operetta ecstasy - like Lehár no less - try the exultant aria for the Kaiser (trs.14, 19) where one can almost imagine the sound of Wunderlich, Piccaver or Waechter. Also there is a Weill-like sourness in the notes but the result is never totally world-weary. Of course there is sarcasm and parody too - listen to the ripped and torn Deutschland über alles in the Trommler's aria (tr.10). Sprechgesang and parodistic laughter all put in an appearance too. This descends into caricatured horror in the Recitative and Aria in Scene 2 (tr.13). At other moments (tr.15) Ullmann retreats into a Frank Bridge-like landscape where there is mildewed fruit on the trees. The acceptance of death by Overall in the Kaisers Abschied is superbly caught by Swanson who is every bit as good as Michael Kraus on the competing Decca. Continuing to surprise to the last Ullmann reserves for the finale a vocal quartet which has a lofty Beethovenian beauty with not a sniff of the acrid or the charnel.

The notes in the 47 page insert book are by Vlasta Benetková. They are thorough and provocative offering and identifying fascinating linkages and echoes. The libretto is only in the sung German. No English translation. The rest of the book is in Czech, german, english andn frecnh. The booklet carries atmospheric photographs of the ARBOS production as well as chilling reproductions of the title page and an extract from the score.

Competition comes from the seminal Decca Entartete series deleted wholesale but recently reissued in Germany and still available at very favoruable prices from www.zweitausendeins.de if you are quick. This is on 440 854-2. It is better value from one point of view in that it also includes three Hölderlin settings written while the composer was in Terezin. The stellar cast includes Franz Mazura, the venerable Walter Berry and Iris Vermillion. Lothar Zagrosek conducts the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester. And there comes the major significant difference. The Studio Matouš production is for exactly the small ensemble specified by the composer. Decca augment the forces to full orchestra and this is very evident in several tracks. The Decca libretto is given in German, French, English and Italian. If you have a command of German, French or Italian you will enjoy the Decca bonus of Hans-Günter Klein's commentary as well as Paula Griffiths' stimulating and quite different English-only essay. The audio-stage for the Decca is, in keeping with the house tradition, wider and more open than in the case of the Studio Matouš. The tones are a shade softer (as at tr.6, Das waren Kriege) than the raw glare of the ARBOS version. The Decca makes a lovely sound but the bitter-sharp Studio Matouš disc catches the original's starveling context much better. Each works very well ... which eloquently says much for Ullmann's strongly imprinted music.

Rob Barnett

 



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