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Viktor ULLMAN (1898-1944)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra op 25 (1939) [19.32]
Piano Sonata No 7 (1944) [25.00]
Variations and Double Fugue on a theme of Arnold Schoenberg Op 3a (1925/34) [12.01]
Moritz Ernst (piano)
Dortmund Philharmonic Orchestra/Gabriel Feltz
rec. December 2011, Emil Berliner Studios, Berlin (sonata); July 2014, Konzerthaus, Dortmund (concerto); August 2015, Studio Britz, Berlin (variations)
CAPRICCIO C5294 [56.33]

When the forgotten music of the murdered Theresienstadt composers started to emerge in the late 80’s, men like Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and lesser known figures like Sandor Vandor we took almost more interest in their tragic biographies than in the real essence of their extant music. Slowly, the quality of their work has revealed itself and mostly it is of a high level and worth the hours that many have put into its often necessary reconstruction. Viktor Ullmann comes into this category being a victim of the holocaust in and around October 1944.

This is not the first CD of his music of course, or indeed of these pieces, so it’s a heartening sign of the times, that comparison can be made between these works.

In 1992 the much-lamented Israeli conductor Israel Yinon recorded three works of Ullmann on Bayer Recorded (BR100228) that is the Piano Concerto with Konrad Richter, the Variations on a theme of Schoenberg orchestrated by Bernhard Wulff and also his orchestration of the Piano Sonata no 7, which has come to be known as Ullmann’s 2nd Symphony. More recently, in 2008 Gerd Albrecht on Glossa has recorded the two symphonies side by side along with other orchestral works (922208), the 1st Symphony being an orchestration of Ullmann’s Piano Sonata No 5 of 1943. Both symphonies are in five movements.

There are recordings of all of Ullmann’s piano sonatas; the one I have and have reviewed (in 2012) is by Jeanne Golan on Steinway (30014). In truth, I much prefer Moritz Ernst on this new recording, not only for the quality of the sound but also because he finds much colour and such a variety of texture in the sonata, it feels in fact like an orchestral work reduced to the piano. The orchestration by Wulff was not as unrestricted as you might imagine, as Ullmann had left pencil marks in the score describing how he was intending to orchestrate the sonatas himself. In the case of the 7th Sonata, it was completed, it seems, only three months before his death so the job was never done. Similarly Ullman intended to orchestrate the Variations and Double Fugue on a theme of Schoenberg a fragment from one of the older master’s Op 5 piano pieces. This was an exercise in twelve-tone composition which Ullmann was never really to repeat.

What emerges, for me, is how eclectic Ullmann was. Clearly he was a Schoenberg sympathiser but the 7th Sonata is a mixture of heady light-hearted D major, perhaps to keep his fellow inmates cheerful in the first movement, a serious freely chromatic Adagio, movement 3 and a mood that moves between wit and despair in the other movements. The finale is largely modal being another set of variations this time, bravely, on a Hebrew theme, which goes through a wonderfully imaginative set of modifications.

To judge how Ullmann did orchestrate listen to the Piano Concerto. As Christian Heindl points out in his very interesting booklet notes, much of the work and, especially I feel, the second and third movements sound quite French with even Ravel coming to mind, that is the Ravel of the Piano Concerti. Ullmann was born in Austria and died a Czech Jew, having lived in Prague for the last ten years of his life; he could have gone down the Janacek line as far as influences were concerned as Hans Krasa did but was clearly drawn towards a Francophile language.

The concerto was written at a time of great tension in 1939, when Ullmann had been trying to emigrate from occupied Prague and dismally failing. The first movement is a tense outburst but the second is calm and trouble free. The short Scherzo and Allegro finale are brittle and rhythmically exciting with the use of deep strings and braying brass mixed with lighter moments. The older recording on Bayer uses faster tempi which add further to the Prokofiev-type power, but the rather boxy recording rather spoils the effect.

To be honest however I will not be supplanting the Israel Yinon version with this disc as much as I have enjoyed it. But if you collected the first release in this series, of Ullmann’s two symphonies coupled with Don Quixote and Six Lieder (C67017) then you will want this follow up disc and perhaps more will be more to come. Capriccio has also produced a DVD entitled Estranged Passengers which sets out to find out more about Viktor Ullmann.

Gary Higginson



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