ULLMANN Complete Piano Sonatas
Among the numerous composers to have been interred at the Terezín transit camp during the early 1940s, Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) left the most substantial body of work; one, moreover, which was the outcome of an evolution with its basis in the amalgam of expressionist and neo-classicist tendencies such as he had been pursuing over the previous two decades.
These seven piano sonatas define the essence of Ullmann’s achievement. The first four reconcile his competing aesthetic tendencies with varying success: the First (1936) has a finely sustained Andante (an ‘in memoriam’ to Mahler) to offset the fragmented unfolding of its outer movements, while the Second (1939) frames piquant variations on a theme collected by Janáček with movements whose energy lacks deeper motivation. The Third Sonata (1940) could seem to be three only nominally related pieces, yet the variations on a theme of Mozart make for a resourceful finale, whereas the Fourth (1941) looks to Bartók with a powerfully projected rhetoric that makes it arguably the most cohesive of the cycle.
The remaining three sonatas were written in Terezín, the experience of which likely provided a catalyst for the formal and expressive integration that Ullmann had long sought. The overall deftness of the Fifth Sonata (1943) does not preclude a deeper vein of emotion emerging in its Andante or the tensile resolve that dominates its fugal finale, while the Sixth (also 1943) is an oblique take on jazz idioms with an ingenious four-movements-in-one structure. Written prior to his being sent to Auschwitz, the Seventh Sonata (1944) is the largest in conception, its five movements taking in an Adagio of plangent import, and with a finale whose variations on a Jewish folksong climax in a triple fugue both implacable and determined.
All these works have been previously recorded but to have them brought together is of obvious benefit – not least when Jeanne Golan’s readings are evidently the result of time spent absorbing and reflecting on this music. The sound conveys the tonal range and depth of her Steinway D, with her succinct booklet-notes an admirable guide to some arresting music.