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Viktor ULLMANN (1898-1944)
Complete Piano Sonatas
Piano Sonata No.1, Op.10 (1936) [15:55]
Piano Sonata No.2, Op.19 (1939) [14:27]
Piano Sonata No.3, Op.26b (1940) [21:15]
Piano Sonata No.4, Op.38 (1941) [18:52]
Piano Sonata No.5, Op.45 (1943) Von meiner Jugend [21:38]
Piano Sonata No.6, Op.49a (1943) [15:27]
Piano Sonata No.7 (1944) [24:16]
Michael Tsalka (piano)
rec. Nydahl Collection, Stockholm, Sweden, 2013/14
PALADINO MUSIC PMR0035 [70:33 + 61:22]

Viktor Ullmann is one of the lost generation of composers who were murdered by the Nazis and when we consider what is happening today we have reason to fear yet again that lessons from the past are never learnt.

Ullmann was a prodigiously talented composer whose drive to create overcame the worst possible situation; sonatas 5-7 were written whilst in the Theresienstadt (Terezin) concentration camp prior to his transfer to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 16 October 1944 and his death in the gas chambers two days later.

The first piano sonata appears to have been an attempt on Ullmann’s part to, as he put it “... fill the gap between the romantic and the ‘atonal’ harmonies.” As such it is ‘modern’ in outlook but ‘tuneful’ in content; a true child of its times. It was dedicated to the pianist Franz Langer whose own success ensured the success of the sonata.

The second sonata was dedicated to another of Ullmann’s friends, Dr Hans Buchenbacher, one of a group of Anthroposophists to which Ullmann adhered. It is a less austere work with a lighter aspect than its predecessor. It was privately premiered by Alice Herz-Sommer, the dedicatee of the fourth sonata. This event was already an illegal one since with the Nazis firmly in control in Prague Ullmann’s works could not be played. While the first movement is equally ‘modern’ as that of the first sonata in outlook the second is sweetly lyrical with its folksy theme. The final movement is a prestissimo that wears its modernity with a lighter touch.

It was typical of Ullmann’s intensely human outlook that he should wish to dedicate his works to friends whom he held in high regard. He dedicated his third sonata to the pianist Juliette ArÓnyi a child prodigy whose prowess as an interpreter of Mozart no doubt led Ullmann to finish the sonata with a long movement based on variations on a theme by Mozart. The sonata’s first two movements are again ‘modern’ in approach but not overly so for there are plenty of tunes to be found within its framework. Unsurprisingly, given the Mozart reference, the last movement is a delight. It is fascinating to hear what a twentieth century composer could weave from the ideas of an eighteenth century one.

As mentioned above the fourth sonata was dedicated to pianist Alice Herz-Sommer who, along with Ullmann and Juliette ArÓnyi, found herself an inmate of the camp at Terezin but who, unlike the other two managed to survive; Juliette ArÓnyi was killed in Auschwitz like Ullmann in 1944. Herz-Sommer made a major contribution to camp life which suited the Nazis who tried to pull the wool over the world’s eyes by presenting Terezin as a ‘gift to the Jewish people’ in which they had ‘total freedom’ to practise all kinds of cultural pursuits. I recommend reading an amazing biography of her entitled “A Garden of Eden in Hell” by Melissa MŘller & Reinhard Piechocki (2006) (Pan Books ISBN 978-0-330-45159-8) which gives an enthralling picture of musical life in the camp and, specifically how Herz-Sommer held that it was playing Chopin that helped her keep her sanity while she protected her son who also survived against all the odds. Once again while this fourth sonata is not without its complexity it has plenty of tuneful episodes, especially in its final movement.

Whilst the first four sonatas were all given a three movement framework, sonata number 6 has four and numbers 5 and 7 have five. Ullmann’s fifth sonata was dedicated to his third wife Elizabeth who died along with him in Auschwitz, or so says the booklet text, despite the subtitle suggesting it is dedicated to his children while the booklet says that was the seventh so I’m afraid I’m confused. In any event it is, like them all, full of interest. The booklet notes indicate that both this and the seventh sonata were planned as works that would eventually become symphonic following instrumental revision leaving us trying to imagine how that might have sounded. The sixth seems to have been completed to Ullmann’s satisfaction requiring no further work.

As implied above the booklet notes state that both the fifth and seventh sonatas were more sketches than completed works, particularly in the case of the seventh. If he had planned that they were one day to become symphonic works then that is understandable yet to the untutored ear such as mine that is not obvious. Perhaps that is just as well for I am able to appreciate them for what they are: major contributions to the piano sonata repertoire of the mid twentieth century during which there was much experimentation in new ways of saying things in music.

These sympathetic readings from Michael Tsalka will help in continuing the recent interest in the works of this member of a group of tragic composers whose music promised so much only to be cut off so brutally. At least 27 works were composed by Viktor Ullmann whilst he was in Terezin. They fully demonstrate his determination that while he could he should ensure that life triumphed over the appalling situation the Nazis had engineered.

Steve Arloff
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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