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 Janáček 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 25th
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 Janáček.
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/Janáček
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 4th 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
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
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.