The composer, conductor and pianist Viktor Ullmann showed great musical promise at an early age; with Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander von Zemlinsky as his teachers in later life he embarked on a varied career that continued while he was interned in Theresienstadt from 1942 to 1944. Just a few months short of war’s end he was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he perished in the gas chambers. It’s a wretched and wrenching tale that’s made all the more remarkable by the fact that Ullmann remained defiantly creative to the very end.
This music was largely unknown until Decca’s enterprising – and pivotal – Entartete Musik series of the 1990s. Among the first releases was Ullmann’s satirical opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis, composedRead more in Theresienstadt a year before his death. It alerted me – and, I suspect, many others - to the composer’s shocking talent, which shines through in the works on this BIS twofer. It’s sobering to read pianist Christophe Sirodeau’s booklet note in which he lists the members of his mother’s family (Fuchsmann) who died in Auschwitz and Sobibor. The dates and convoy numbers are particularly chilling, as they remind us the Nazis were just as efficient at bureaucracy as they were at mass slaughter.
There are rival recordings of the Ullmann sonatas from Robert Kolben (Koch), Gregor Weichert (CPO), Jeanne Golan, and Maria Garzón; only the Golan contains all seven sonatas. Nevertheless, all are welcome evidence of a continuing interest in Ullmann’s oeuvre, and BIS – well-known for their exploration of more peripheral repertoire – must be applauded for keeping up the momentum. In addition to completeness bang-up-to-date sonics makes this newcomer look very competitive indeed.
As Sirodeau points out in his booklet essay the first four sonatas are – in order - tributes to Mahler, Janá?ek, Mozart and Bartók. Sonata No. 1 has a startling lucidity that blends Schoenbergian economy with the harmonies one associates with the likes of Scriabin. Sirodeau’s fine pianism – well caught by the engineers – is also an amalgam in that it combines clean, crisp playing with flashes of surprising inwardness and lyricism. Pedagogic studies these aren’t, and the second movement of this sonata, subtitled In memoriam Gustav Mahler, has a haunting simplicity that’s deeply affecting. Sirodeau evinces a fine ear for colour and rhythm – splashes of one, fragments of the other – and his micrometer-like calibration of dynamics is exemplary.
Sonata No. 2 confirms these as works of considerable confidence and purpose. The Moravian folk tune at the heart of this piece – the link to Janá?ek – has all the freshness and vitality that one hears in the latter’s On the overgrown path. Even the closing Prestissimo, with its obsessive figures, is full of invention and interest; indeed, Sirodeau lifts and aerates this music in the most delightful way. I fancy there’s a dry wit at work there too. In any event, this pianist displays a masterly control – and understanding - of the score’s content and style that would be very hard to match.
The mellifluous character and Mozartian themes of Sonata No. 3, deftly plaited with music of sudden sinew, is another of hybrid that shows Ullmann’s command of competing idioms. Sirodeau is similarly well attuned, so that all these elements are explored to the full. His touch in the surging Scherzo is particularly impressive, as is his ability to tease out and animate Ullmann’s lively tunes. The finale encompasses so much – classical proportion, romantic ardour and a knowing modernity that owes more to the café than the concert hall. As before Sirodeau yokes it all together with ease.
The first disc ends with Sonata No. 4, dedicated to Ullmann’s fellow internee Alice Herz-Sommer, who died in January 2014 at the remarkable age of 110. And what a tribute it is; eloquent in the Allegro vivace, gentle but firm in the Adagio, and fearless in the finale. Sirodeau imbues it all with a spontaneity and sparkle that will perplex those who are unfamiliar with this composer and expect something fierce and unremitting. Indeed, in Sirodeau’s hands this music is rendered accessible in the best possible sense; that will surely help to win more converts to the composer’s cause.
The second CD contains the remaining sonatas, all of which were written at Theresienstadt. Perhaps most poignant is Sonata No. 5, subtitled Von meiner Jugend (From my youth). From the firm stride and confidence of the Allegro con brio – its extrovert character is tempered with moments of surpassing tenderness – to the pensive circularity of the Andante – Piú adagio, Sirodeau displays an unwavering instinct for mood and phrase. The giddy little Toccatina and the Serenade are deftly done, the latter infused with a bracing, tangential strangeness. This is such a well balanced and sophisticated recording; indeed, the Steinway D’s range and richness of tone are caught with a fidelity that one associates with Hyperion’s best piano offerings.
The kaleidoscopic writing of the Allegro of the Sonata No. 6 contrasts nicely with the glittering Allegretto and Presto that follow; remarkably for music of such compactness it teems with incident. Sonata No. 7, dedicated to three of Ullmann’s five children, has a nursery-like innocence that’s apt to grind against a darker world of adult experience. It’s another of those pieces that reconciles antinomies in a seamless fashion. It all flickers past in a zoetrope of conflicting emotions; these fleeting reminiscences and musical quotations drive home the composer’s steadiness and stoicism in the face of such terrible adversity.
After that minor masterpiece, so exhaustively explored, the earlier Variations and Double Fugue on a theme by Schoenberg seems almost aphoristic by comparison. Sirodeau conjures a mix of dark sonorities and light, elusive phrases. Even though Ullmann’s in abstract mode Sirodeau taps into a vein of poetry here; as before this intuitive artist proves a reliable and illuminating guide to these scores. His liner-notes are similarly reassuring in their detail and authority.
This complete set of sonatas is a significant addition to the Ullmann discography. Sirodeau certainly digs deeper than Jeanne Golan does – he’s better recorded too – but I suspect some will prefer Golan’s clear, finely wrought playing style. Trouble is, now that I’ve heard Sirodeau nothing else will do.
Deeply penetrating performances; a new benchmark has been set.