ULLMANN: Piano Concerto, Op. 25. Piano Sonatas Nos. 3 & 7 / Annika Treutler, pno; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin; Stephan Frucht, cond / Berlin Classics 0301463BC
As in the case of George Antheil, Viktor Ullmann has also crept—perhaps not as prominently but still a presence—into the standard repertoire hither and yon. (Well, maybe yon; hither still doesn’t program his music.) And with him, it started with his politically-charged, anti-Nazi opera The Emperor of Atlantis, written while he was in the concentration camp where he would die.
Yet as I’ve said many times, I don’t judge or promote a composer just because he was Jewish and a victim of the Nazis, I promote composers who wrote good, original music, and in my view Ullmann was a truly original and interesting composer.
All three of these works date from the late 1930s, when Ullmann had fully formed his own musical style but before he was arrested and sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where he was killed in 1944. The first movement of the Concerto is built around a simple rhythmic motif, repeated and slightly varied as it progresses. To my ears, this first movement is not a particularly interesting piece. The second movement, slower and more lyrical, was for me a more interesting piece but it didn’t seem to have much connection either in themes or style to the first. In the third movement, Ullmann creates another staccato theme, but this time it is interspersed with a slightly slower, more syncopated figure, and the construction is more interesting. The fourth movement, an “Allegro molto,” moves along at a brisk clip, here combining more complex rhythmic themes with a moto perpetuo. In short, an interesting piece but not really very convincing.
The Piano Sonata No. 3, on the other hand, is a whimsical and lively piece, interesting and well-written, combining rhythmic motifs with quite interesting development. I have all seven of Ullmann’s piano sonatas played by pianist Christoph Sirodeau on Bis, and to my ears the problem here—and, possibly, even in the piano concerto—is Treutler, a wussy, soft-grained pianist who sounds as if she is scared to death to hit the keys with anything resembling force. Her fortes and sforzandos are all small-scale; she has an extremely narrow dynamic range, and plays none of this music as if she really cares much about it.
Any composer is better appreciated when the interpreter is a good one and has something to say about the music, but since Treutler doesn’t seem to care a whit about these pieces it’s hard for the listener to stay engaged either. Therefore I recommend the Sirodeau recordings and advise you to skip this one.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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