Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), Czech composer of Jewish ancestry, perhaps mostly known today for his status with the circle of composers and performers in the Terezin show concentration camp (the “Paradise Ghetto”) and for being exterminated at Auschwitz, but he deserves to be even better known just for his expertly crafted music, which is unfailingly strong in character, interesting, and even charming. I have 8 CDs of his work, ranging from songs and piano pieces and a piano concerto to the satirical opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis, which was written and rehearsed at Terezin before the censors withdrew permission for a performance. Various musicians of our own time have promoted his work, including Mina Miller’s “Music of Remembrance” group in Seattle, and my friend, the late pianist David Reed Bloch, professor of musicology at the University of Tel Aviv, who took Ullmann’s music around the world. Locally both the Terezin Foundation and the Boston Lyric Opera have featured the composer’s works. See BMInt review here. The pianist Jeanne Golan, who maintains an Ullmann blog and has recorded all seven of his sonatas, gave a better than respectful account of three of them last night at Distler Auditorium at Tufts.
Ullmann’s sonatas are typical of their time. They have ample traces of the late-Romantic post-Brahms tonality, with an abundance of melodic counterpoint that is like Reger’s but without the excesses; there is a generous measure of quartal harmony (built on perfect fourths) that began with Berg in his Sonata Op. 1 and that Hindemith put to use in many different works, but there is a lot of whole-tone harmony as well (not at all like Debussy’s). In Ullmann’s Sonata No. 3, Op. 26, of 1939, there is a crispness of repeated-note piano style that resembles Bartók’s Op. 14 Suite, but this is nicely balanced by a grazioso finale in variation form (the theme is from an Allegro in B-flat major, K. 3, by the six-year-old Mozart).
Ullmann’s Sonata No. 5 Op. 45, was composed in 1943 in Terezin, and has five movements. Jeanne Golan remarked on an epigraph in the score from Karl Kraus’s poem, “Before sleep,” which hints that Ullmann foresaw his own approaching doom; Ullmann dedicated the sonata to his wife Elizabeth, who shared his fate. The Andante second movement and the lullaby-like fourth movement both have a brooding quality rather like Berg’s Opus 2 songs, with chromatically-weaving parallel major thirds. The Finale fugato is strong and bouncy.
Golan’s recital concluded formally with the Op. 38 Fourth Sonata, composed in 1941 before Ullmann was interned. It is somewhat more upbeat and even jazzy, with a panoply of repeated chords in the Presto finale; the Adagio second movement, dominated by expressive chromatic melody, is really slow and solemn. But there was an encore, too: a Minuet called “Dance of Death,” originally part of the Fifth Sonata but discarded, and then incorporated into Der Kaiser von Atlantis. It was ponderous for a minuet, but the satirical intent, like that of the opera, was unmistakable.