VIKTOR ULLMANN: Complete Piano Sonatas; Menuett (Totentanz) – Jean Golan, p. – Steinway & Sons (2 CDs)

by | Apr 8, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

VIKTOR ULLMANN: Complete Piano Sonatas; Menuett (Totentanz) – Jean Golan, piano – Steinway & Sons 30014 (2 CDs), 66:11; 59:10 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

This is one of those albums that I’ve listened to repeatedly, toting it with me everywhere that I could possibly spin it on a CD player, but despite the time I’ve given myself with it, I’m still not entirely sure what to say about the music. But here goes. For one thing, Viktor Ullmann (1898–1944) wrote music that, despite obvious influences, is highly individual and ultimately recalls the work of very few of his contemporaries, and if so, only fleetingly. For another thing, except for the very last of his sonatas, most of them are fairly short, meaning that we have few grand statements in the manner of Prokofiev’s war-time sonatas. Instead, many of the individual movements are aphoristic, fleeting, hard to get an esthetic handle on. And ironically, though the final three sonatas display an increasing maturity and command of musical expression, the individual movements are even shorter and less developed—or as pianist Jean Golan says, the sonatas become more “episodic,” expanding from the traditional three movements to four (in the case of Sonata No. 6) or five.

Ullmann was born in Silesia (now a part of Poland) in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His parents were Jewish but converted to Catholicism shortly before his birth, which allowed his father to enter the nobility and Viktor to enjoy privileges that would otherwise have been denied him. His musical talents appeared early and gave him the opportunity to study with Arnold Schoenberg. But following World War I, in which Ullmann served as a lieutenant on the Italian Front, he entered Vienna University as a law student. In 1919, he abandoned his studies and moved to Prague, where he continued his musical education with Schoenberg’s teacher, Alexander von Zemlinsky.

Ullmann continued to compose and held a number of positions as music director and conductor in the 1920s. Later, however, he became attracted to the philosophical movement known as anthroposophy, giving up music to pursue his new interest, at the same time running a bookshop in Stuttgart. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, he fled to Prague. There he worked as a musical journalist and teacher, continuing his musical education with a radical new mentor, Alois Hába, a pioneer of composition based on quarter tones. Ullmann’s first four piano sonatas were written while he was living this second time in Prague.

In 1942, Ullmann was deported to the Nazi concentration camp at Terezin (Theresienstadt), which was maintained as a model to mask Nazi atrocities at the death camps. While there, he acted as piano accompanist and concert organizer, as well as continuing to compose. There he wrote his final three sonatas, as well songs and stage works. The Totentanz that Golan offers as an encore is taken from Ullmann’s chamber opera written at Theresienstadt, The Emperor of Atlantis, which understandably deals with the issue of genocide. In 1944, Ullmann was transferred to Auschwitz, where he was executed within a month.

A strange, eventful, tragic life. And, as I note, strangely individualistic music to go along with it.  Jean Golan provides brief, mostly helpful analyses of the sonatas, but they leave unexplained many of the esthetic choices behind these works. The influence of Schoenberg, at least of Schoenberg in his atonal period, is evident in the sonatas. As Golan mentions, the first movement of the Third Sonata is atonal (and rather expressionistic) very much in the Schoenberg vein, but this is followed by a violently insistent and repetitive scherzo and a variations-form finale based on an original theme that sounds like it might have been written by Boccherini or Gossec. The variations are crazily chromatic and proceed to increasingly deconstruct the original theme, but still, this sonata is typical of the odd dialog between modernism and tradition that occurs throughout the series.

The Fourth Sonata begins with a movement dominated by a march-like theme that has a kind of heartless inexorability about it. One can’t help but think of what was happening in Europe at the time, as Hitler’s jackboots began to trample the rights of once-free peoples. Golan thinks that “much of this sonata recalls Bela Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste” and cites the second movement, “where Ullmann writes a long drawn-out fugue whose subject (melody) and treatment are reminiscent of Bartok’s in his opening movement.” The melody may be reminiscent, but the treatment seems quite different to me: Ullmann doesn’t build his fugue to a huge crescendo and then retreat from it in palindromic fashion. But this and the first movement seem to underscore the sense of geopolitical angst that Ullmann must have felt at the time. Ullmann outdoes himself in the finale, a triple fugue, but this comes as a release, as if art, the high art of counterpoint, is a positive answer to all the negativity gripping Europe at the time.

The three sonatas written at Theresienstadt go even further in melding the modernistic, the popular, and the traditional and seem to me to make even more successful personal statements. The Fifth Sonata, as Golan writes, “recalls both Schoenberg and Slavic folk tunes.” Even more striking, though, is the fact that the genial first movement seems like a slightly wayward evocation of the waltz. The Seventh features a finale that is a set of variations on the Yiddish folk tune “Song of Rachel.” Like the Fourth Sonata, the work ends with fugue, “in which [Ullmann] interweaves three melodic ideas, the Hussite patriot song, Ye who are God’s warriors, the Lutheran chorale, Now thank we all our God, and the B-A-C-H motive, invoking for the listener the strength derived from one’s connection to homeland, spirituality, and music.”

Different again in its influence is Sonata No. 6, which is rhythmically restless, recalling Bartók far more than Schoenberg; contrapuntal; but also with definite echoes of modern pop music in its harmonies and rhythms. Except for the hard-edged scherzo third movement, it’s an oddly relaxed work given the conditions under which it was written.

So now, perhaps, you see my consternation in trying to write about and describe this music. Despite the range of influences that show up in it, this is music that is highly individualistic as well as protean. Ullmann’s style and esthetic are hard to pin down because though you recognize the voice from one sonata to another, that voice remains elusive: academic and slightly impersonal in the first two sonatas; angst-ridden in the Third; more relaxed and even hopeful in the last three, written literally under the gun.

I think there is much to learn and admire here, but this is music you can’t grasp on an initial contact—and in some cases even after repeated contacts. But it is engaging, thought-provoking, and ultimately important. My thanks, then, to Jean Golan, who has obviously spent some time with the music and appreciates it deeply—and plays it beautifully, on a beautiful instrument, the Steinway D. A powerful studio recording helps her make the best case for Viktor Ullmann, a composer who managed to create lasting art in the face of a universal tragedy.

— Lee Passarella