Viktor ULLMANN (1898-1944)
Piano Rarities
Piano Sonata no.5, op.45 (1943) [17:26]
Piano Sonata no.6, op.49 (1943) [12:52]
Piano Sonata no.7 (1944) [22:05]
Lala Isakova (piano)
rec. Deutschland Berlin, Germany, Studio Gärtnerstrasse, 3-5 June 2010
CRYSTAL CLASSICS N67 070 [53:05]
I find listening to these quite painful as I do all music by the ‘lost generation’ of composers who were ruthlessly murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Viktor Ullmann is another such example. The only bright spark in the story of these composers is, that despite everything, and quite incredibly, their works survived. They stand as a testament to the uplifting nature of the art of these people created in almost impossible circumstances, as well as a reminder of the level of cruelty Man can descend to. The notes accompanying the disc are centred on Ullmann’s music being anthroposophical in nature, a reference to the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner and its connection with Goethe. I don’t pretend to understand any of that so shall simply give my reaction to the music as it occurs to me.

These works were composed in Theresienstadt (Terezin), the transit camp in northern Bohemia in which the Nazis carried out their cynical attempt to scotch the rumours of death camps that were circulating. It was designed to hoodwink the world by creating the illusion of a camp in which the Jews were at liberty, nay encouraged, to organise cultural pursuits like composing music, playing in orchestras, writing and performing plays and art classes and then inviting visiting members of the Red Cross to witness the relative ‘freedom’ they had there. They carefully disguised the fact that all these people were then shipped off to Auschwitz and elsewhere to their deaths, including the entire cast, almost all of whom died, who performed Brundibár, the children’s opera by Hans Krása, that was performed 55 times. 140,000 people passed through the camp on their way to their deaths and over 30,000 died there of hunger and disease. The blocks of houses still bore block numbers when I visited the town in the 1970s, a chilling reminder of their previous use. In spite of all this what struck me with this music was its freshness and life-affirming nature; in Ullmann’s own words in Theresienstadt “everything musical is in complete contrast to the environment”. As the liner-notes then point out “Courage was needed to embrace this approach, to write sonata movements with markings “Allegro con brio”, “Vivace” and “Allegro grazioso” in a place of life-denying discrimination.”

Right from the first notes of Sonata no.5 there is a gaiety, a dance-like rhythm, a lightness of mood that belies its origins with sounds of birds. The second movement is more reflective and serious in nature. The third extremely short movement returns to gaiety all too briefly, the fourth again seeing a seriousness return though with light overtones. The final one has march-like rhythms perhaps alluding to the soldiers in the background.

There is a clearly discernible influence of Bach in the beginning of Sonata no.6 while the second movement embodies all the grace its marking Allegretto grazioso implies. The Presto again seems to allude to a military presence that always lurks in the background and from which there is no escape. Bachian melodies return in the final movement that rounds the sonata off in brisk fashion. The final sonata on this disc and the last Ullmann had a chance of writing - he was sent to Auchwitz together with his three children on 16 October 1944 and murdered 2 days later - has been likened to a summation of his life and a refutation of the Nazi ideology. With the final movement subtitled Variations and Fugue about a Hebrew folk-song he identifies with the majority of fellow prisoners despite his family having converted to Catholicism before he was born - a further example of cruel irony. He wrote: "By no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon. Our endeavour with respect to arts was commensurate with our will to live." This chimes in with Goethe’s maxim: “Live in the moment, live in eternity” and Ullmann and all his contemporaries who shared his fate will be remembered through their magnificent creations.

These sonatas are incredibly powerful works that show what a fantastically gifted composer Ullmann was and what a loss the world of music suffered with the curtailing of his life at the age of 46. They require a pianist with equal power to do them justice and they certainly get that from Azerbaijani pianist Lala Isakova whose muscular pianism leaves us with an extremely satisfying feeling of a composer well served.
Steve Arloff
Leaves us with an extremely satisfying feeling of a composer well served.