ULLMANN: Piano Concerto, Op. 25.* Piano Sonata No. 7. Variations and Double Fugue on a Theme of Arnold Schoenberg / Moritz Ernst, pianist; *Dortmunder Philharmoniker; *Gabriel Feltz, conductor / Capriccio C5294
Of all the Jewish composers murdered by the Nazis, the name of Viktor Ullmann is the one most often mentioned as the greatest tragedy, with good reason: his music, even up to and including his anti-Nazi opera The Emperor of Atlantis, is startlingly original and dramatic. This new CD, the second by Capriccio of his music (the first included his Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2, Don Quixote Dances the Fandango, and 6 lieder), is proof enough of that statement. From its very first notes, the Piano Concerto will grab your attention like a speeding train hurtling down upon you.
Yes, Ullmann does have his tender moments—there are even a few in the tempestuous first movement of this concerto—but drama and angst were certainly uppermost in his musical thoughts. Of course, there was good reason for angst when he wrote the concerto (1939), but not everyone was stimulated to such creative heights. Ullmann’s music is bitonal but not atonal; it bears a stronger kinship to the works of Roy Harris or early Hindemith than to those of Stravinsky or Schoenberg, despite the use of a Schoenberg theme in the Variations and Double Fugue; but his sense of structure is always uppermost in everything he wrote.
The performance of the concerto is absolutely first-rate, thanks in large measure to the powerful conducting of Gabriel Feltz. Pianist Moritz Ernst plays with sensitivity and a wonderful lyric line, but there were a few moments when I wished he were more dynamic. The orchestra is splendidly recorded to boot: listen to the richness of the basses in the slow movement. The only real disappointment is the ending, which sounded formulaic and too conveniently tacked on for me.
In the sonata, we hear Ullmann conversing, as it were, with himself. The work is ruminative, moving from section to section and tempo to tempo like a hiker going through the woods and stopping every so often to admire the flora and fauna. Indeed, so sparse is some of the writing here that it almost sounds as if the composer were actually sitting at the piano, improvising music into being for you. Again, the harmonic base is spiky if still essentially tonal, and Ernst does a nice job of playing the brisk staccato rhythms.
Considering the year in which he wrote it—1944—you’d think the music would be much darker and less whimsical in places than it is, but perhaps for Ullmann composing this sonata was a mental and emotional “vacation” for him from the grim realities of his life. One of the more interesting things about both concerto and sonata is the fact that Ullmann used linked movements, and they flow so easily and naturally into one another that there is no real discernible break or shift of mood to the listener. This piano sonata, for instance, is in five movements, but only when Ernst pauses between the third and fourth movements does the listener notice a specific shift. Comparing his performance of this sonata to that of Christophe Sirodeau on the complete set of Ullmann piano sonatas (Bis 2116), one finds the latter pianist brisker and a bit more percussive in approach in every movement but the last, which is taken a full minute slower. Score tempo or artistic choice? Having never seen the music for this sonata, I can’t say, but the Sirodeau performance is effective despite his being absolutely swamped in extraneous echo and reverb, sadly a hallmark of too many Bis recordings nowadays. Nonetheless, the Sirodeau set is highly recommended for its inclusion of all of Ullmann’s piano music.
Ernst plays the Schoenberg Variations very well indeed. This is earlier Ullmann, composed in 1925 and revised in 1934. Once again, there is a surprising amount of space in the music, at least until one reaches the more complex variations where a “walking bass” line is established under the right-hand part of the score.
All in all, a fine recording of this music, but if you have the Sirodeau set and Gerd Albrecht’s album which includes the Piano Concerto with Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (Orfeo C366951A) you may not need it. They’re very good performances but not so individual as to be indispensable.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley