How fortunate that we are now in a position to select from one of several sets of the complete piano sonatas of Viktor Ullmann. Two such twofers arrive almost simultaneously, to complicate the existing situation still further, as there are already such examples from Jeanne Golan (Steinway 30014) and Konrad Richter (Bayer 100113-14).
There could hardly be more of a difference between the perceptions of Christophe Sirodeau and Michael Tsalka in this repertoire. Sirodeau, bathed by BIS’s expansive and warm sound quality, manages nevertheless to manoeuvre deftly through Ullmann’s often demanding writing. Tsalka, in a much more recessed and dry acoustic, takes far longer – sometimes startlingly longer – to pursue the emotive heart of the writing. Both points of view are strongly held, and both offer differing visions of the composer’s music. From Sirodeau one feels the cool iconoclasm, from Tsalka a rather more measured quality. There are a few passages in the finale of the First Sonata in Sirodeau’s recording which feel like speeded-up Debussy, but Tsalka’s brittle staccati and less obvious tonal bloom sound wholly different. Of the two I think it’s Sirodeau who best honours the instruction ‘energico e agitato’ in the Second Sonata of 1938-39. His articulation is the more urgent, and he finds a remorseless quality that seems more fitting. The very beautiful second movement variations – on a Moravian melody that Janáček had once set – is played beautifully by both pianists, but its pungency is more visceral in the BIS recording, Tsalka refraining from the abruptness and almost violence that Sirodeau locates. Tempo discrepancies are at their most extreme in the outer movements of the Third Sonata. Tsalka’s pawkiness is strong, though his attempt to preserve the grazioso
element at this slow tempo is not easy to reconcile with the instruction ma agitato.
Indeed there are times when both men’s performances are so dissimilar that one could almost be listening to two different sonatas.
It’s Sirodeau’s sharper sense of rhythmic definition and tonal colour that truly separates the two pianists. Even when he is slower – as he is, rather unexpectedly, in the slow movement of No.4 – he manages to keep the music alive, and it serves as suitable preparation for the sonata’s finale where he brings out, as Tsalka does not, quite, the music’s occasional sinister quality. Such tonal constraints tend to subdue Tsalka, here and there. I feel it strongly in No.5 where Sirodeau is the more suggestive. And his slow tempi – not invariably but largely – tend to reduce the music’s incisive qualities. In No.6 for instance he is very much slower than Sirodeau. And if you listen to that stalwart of Czech piano music, Emil Leichner, you will also hear that Leichner’s conception is much more vivid and dramatic, Tsalka seeming sluggish alongside him and Sirodeau. One of the only sonatas where Tsalka’s tempi match others – and that includes Paul Orgel in his Phoenix recording, who is actually the fleetest of all – is of No.7, composed in 1944. The rich finale, with its variations – Ullmann was a magnificent composer of variation form - emerges as successful in both performances, and both pianists earn great admiration for their sensitive exploration of this final sonata’s five-movement form. Sirodeau offers a bonus, the Variations and Double Fugue
on a theme of Arnold Schoenberg, a telling work indicative both of influence but also mastery of form.
Ultimately, however, of the two pianists it’s Sirodeau who searches deeper into the music, less obviously feelingly perhaps, but aided by that most sympathetic recording, more tellingly, allusively, and completely.
Previous review (BIS):