ULLMANN: The Complete Works for Piano Solo = Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 thru 7; Variations & Double Fugue – Christophe Sirodeau, p. – BIS (2 CDs)

ULLMANN: The Complete Works for Piano Solo = Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 thru 7; Variations & Double Fugue, Op. 3a – Christophe Sirodeau, p. – BIS 2116 (2 CDs) TT: 125:01 (8/12/14) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Coincident to the seventieth anniversary of the composer’s untimely death, BIS issues a 2-CD set (rec. 2010 and 2012) devoted to the complete piano music of Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), another of that “Lost Generation” of Jewish musicians who died in the Holocaust. Ullmann managed to accomplish significant work at the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt, which served the noxious propaganda ministry as their “model” of cultural endeavor. That artists and musicians devoted themselves to creative projects and educational programs does certify the human spirit’s endurance even in the midst of murderous hypocrisy.

While acknowledging all of this, Christophe Sirodeau in his illuminating liner notes, states his own aim in making this recording: Viktor Ullmann should be studied and played not as a victim of the Nazis but on his own merits, which. . .earn him an illustrious place in twentieth-century music. We thus rather intended to celebrate his life and work as a composer – from the Schoenberg Variations, which in their very first incarnation saw the light of day in 1929, to Piano Sonata No.7 –  completed a few weeks before Ullmann’s final deportation and death in Auschwitz.” [In fact, along with Erwin Schulhoff, I think the two are the best composers of the recently-promoted “entartete” group…Ed.]

The seven piano sonatas sum up the composer’s highly individual style, on the edge of both the traditional tonal system and of Schoenberg’s method. The first four, composed in Prague before Ullmann’s deportation, pay tribute respectively to Mahler, Janácek, Mozart and, more obliquely, Bartók. But also in the three sonatas that he wrote in Theresienstadt, Ullmann includes references to other composers and compositions. Most impressively this occurs in the Finale of the Seventh, entitled Variations and Fugue on a Hebrew Folksong. The imposing closing fugue also makes conspicuous use of the BACH motif, a Hussite chorale and the Lutheran chorale Nun danket alle Gott, testifying, in Christophe Sirodeau’s opinion, to a desire to reaffirm – faced with the Nazi refusal to accept – Jews who had been integrated into German culture for centuries, that he, Viktor Ullmann, [remained] completely devoted to the long-lasting German cultural heritage – under the circumstances, a true composer’s gesture of resistance.

One might wish to approach this emotionally wrought collection selectively: perhaps the second movement of the Sonata No. 1(1936), subtitled In Memoriam Gustav Mahler, proves most appropriate. Intellectually, Ullmann had allied himself to the poet Novalis, whose Hymn to Night so influences Wagner’s Tristan, and subsequently Mahler. The tonal syntax of the Andante (quasi marcia funebre) points almost literally to late Liszt, especially a piece like Unstern. Ullmann’s use of fourths will likely remind us of Scriabin or aspects of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. The last section turns out to be a palindrome or retrograde of the opening. The acerbic last movement shares the ironic ethos of contemporaries Weill and Hindemith. Ullmann’s Schoenberg Variations (1934) splices his dedication to form with his sympathy for dodecaphony, taking the original motif through seven variants in alternately Baroque (gavotte), Classical (menuetto), and Modern impulses, the last incorporating inversion, transposition, and the “Gothic” notion of an instrumental groan in the ninth variation. That the work ends in F Major makes the atonal double-fugue finale a testament to the composer’s dry irony.

The entire Second Sonata (1939) shimmers with energies – earthy and unearthly – that resonate in Janacek and Moravian chord progressions. The first movement’s development includes some punishing ostinati and hocket-like percussion. The second movement presents us a favorite Ullmann device, the theme-and-variations, what Ullmann calls “the metamorphosis of individuality into various earthly lives.” The last movement Prestissimo gallops vigorously before it dissolves into the ether.

The Third Sonata (1940) conveys a glittery, percussive Hungarian ethos, dedicated as it is to Juliette Aranyi. Some of the filigree may derive from Beethoven’s Op. 90 Sonata in E Minor. The ensuing Allegro violente will intimidate the meek. The last movement takes a theme from Mozart and subjects it to seven variations that exploit harmony from jazz to Alban Berg. The 1941 Fourth Sonata clearly finds in Bartok its guiding spirit, with occasional polyphonic nods to Hindemith. Pianist Sirodeau notes in the E-flat Major ending of the Allegro vivace an adumbration of late Richard Strauss. For sheer technical wizardry, the last movement Vivace molto proffers a triple fugue in Bulgarian rhythm that assumes the contrapuntal invention of Bartok and Bach.

The Theresienstadt sonatas begin with the five-movement Sonata No. 5 (1943), a “suite” entitled “Von meiner jugend” and dedicated to the composer’s wife, Elisabeth. In C Major at first, the music propels itself through arabesque figures, ghostly waltzes, and melting arpeggios. After a stealthy Andante (or “Nocturne”) contrapuntal Toccatina challenges Sirodeau’s fingers and metric ability. The Schoenberg influence from his Op. 11 infiltrates Ullmann’s use of harmonics in the Serenade movement. A martial Fugato concludes the work, a sinister combination of Stravinsky and Prokofiev which senses the shape of things to come.  Bartok’s love of the arch-form influences the first and last movements from Ullmann’s Sonata No. 6 (1943); but the polyphonic, harmonic language borrows from jazz, Stravinsky and Alban Berg. The interior movements proffer a theme and six variations, and the Presto alludes – in the course of its syncopes – to Berg’s Wozzeck. Sirodeau treats the five-movement 1944 Piano Sonata No. 7 as Ullmann’s magnum opus, a compendium of musical styles that evolve directly from the German tradition of Richard Strauss and Mahler and then proceed to the most taxing strictness of the Second Viennese School as exemplified in Webern. The spirit of Smetana and Moravia infuses both the BACH motif and the Hussite chorale (Ye Warriors of God) that finds a counterpoint in Luther’s Nun danket alle Gott. Ullmann ironically begs the question of who “truly” represents, defends, and preserves German culture, Jew or Nazi?

From Ullmann himself : “Here, where artistic substance has to try and endure its daily structure, where every bit of divine inspiration stands counter to its surroundings, it is here that one finds the master-class…In my work at Theresienstadt , I have bloomed in musical growth and not felt myself at all inhibited; by no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon, and our endeavor with respect to Arts was commensurate with our will to live. And I am convinced that all who have worked in life and art to wrestle content into its unyielding form will say that I was right…”

—Gary Lemco

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