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Viktor ULLMANN (1898-1944)
Piano Concerto, op.25 (1939) [17:53]
Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, op.37 [37:06]
Herbert Schuch (piano)
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Olari Elts
rec. Philharmonie Cologne, Germany, 21-24 March 2011.
The booklet notes enclosed with this disc explain how bourgeois musical life developed in Vienna around the time that Beethoven’s third piano concerto was first presented. It at last escaped the overriding influence of the imperial court and the nobility. The Musical Academy organised by Beethoven had an influential role in this development. It further explains that this atmosphere came to its zenith around the turn of the twentieth century. It was then that the young 11 year old Viktor Ullmann moved with his mother to Vienna in 1909. This was from his birthplace in Teschen in the Moravian-Silesian part of today’s Czech Republic - now known as Český Těsín. Ullmann’s father was an officer of the imperial and royal monarchy. With all this information we can see the tenuous link between the two composers on this disc. Even so they are surely strange musical bedfellows. That said there is no reason why you can’t have an almost mid-twentieth century work followed by one that dates from shortly after the end of the eighteenth century. In any event it is good to hear both works since the Ullmann piano concerto is rarely heard and one can certainly never hear Beethoven’s third too often.
By now I imagine people, and certainly those who read reviews on MusicWeb, International will be well aware of the cruel story attached to the life of Viktor Ullmann. He, together with other Czech composers of his generation, Schulhoff, Klein, Krasa and Haas were unfortunate in this context to be born Jewish. As a result they perished at the hands of the Nazis, as indeed did the dedicatee of the concerto, the pianist Juliette Aranyi. It is a cruel irony that Ullmann suffered this fate despite the fact that his parents had become Catholic converts before he was born. Composed in 1939/40 the piano concerto was scheduled for a performance in a two piano reduction in Terezin (Theresienstadt), the ‘transit’ camp from where the inmates were mainly shipped off to Auschwitz. Juliette was to play the main part and Ullmann himself the orchestral part on a second piano. The performance never took place.
The concerto is dark in character with the piano’s role effectively acting as an integrated part of the orchestra rather than as a solo instrument per se. The work springs into action right from the start with an insistent theme that briefly becomes a little sunnier before reverting to its anxious sounding atmosphere. The second movement is the only oasis of calm in the entire concerto but even it has an underlying troubled feeling to it. Ullmann’s love for Mahler is evident here with echoes of his 6th Symphony and some lush orchestral writing with long flowing lines. The second movement is but a brief respite from the darkness and unease that generally pervades the concerto. The third movement with its own Mahlerian undertones brings that feeling back. The short finale has a gentle sounding theme but once stated it is then compressed and distorted to become a grotesque ending to this short but effective work.
What can be said of Beethoven’s third piano concerto that has not already been said and by critics far more erudite than I could ever hope to be? Listening again one cannot but shake one’s head in wonder at the pure genius that Beethoven was. After the orchestral introduction the piano enters at the perfect moment and everything is laid out it the best of all possible ways. It is no wonder that the concerto could never suffer from overkill as so many other works do. The entire experience just reaffirms my feeling about this composer. I always come back to him no matter what journeys of discovery I make. He is my musical rock to which I always feel anchored, my benchmark against which all other composers are measured.
Romanian-born pianist Herbert Schuch, whose home has been in Germany since the age of nine, plays with an innate sensitivity and much flair. While there are many brilliant performances of this concerto which means any new one has an uphill struggle to make its mark this is not without some very beautiful passages. I particularly enjoyed his phrasing and his lightness of touch, especially in the Largo. His performance of the Ullmann was extremely effective and he made a very good case for it. I know of only two other recordings so he doesn’t have many rivals on that score. In both concertos he is accompanied by a superb orchestra that has garnered much well deserved acclaim. It is conducted by Estonian Olari Elts, Principal Guest Conductor of both the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Estonian National Orchestra. He appears regularly with a variety of others around the world.
While one may prefer many other recordings of the Beethoven anyone who wants to hear the Ullmann should hear this disc. However, my feeling is that the disc would have been a more attractive proposition if it had featured other piano concertos by composers who were persecuted or murdered by the Nazis such as Erwin Schulhoff and Hans Gál.
Steve Arloff 

Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano concerto 3

See also review by Byzantion