Viktor Ullman – A Voice That Won’t Be Silenced

Cappricio’s first Viktor Ullman release featured two symphonies, with the Gürzenich-Orchester and James Conlon. This time the focus is on Ullman’s piano music, ably played by Moritz Ernst. Ullman himself was an outstanding pianist. His writing for the instrument is in many ways, his most personal form of expression.

Ullman’s Piano Concerto, Op. 25 was completed in 1939. He had studied with both Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander Zemlinsky. Some influences of both can be heard. Although the work is mostly tonal, there are plenty of mordant dissonances. While that may reflect Schoenberg, the rich orchestration reminds me of Zemlinksy.

The piano solo, though, is pure Ullman. The concerto is an exciting work, that takes some surprising — though not disorienting — twists and turns. Ernst plays energetically, with a hint of impertinence.

The title of the 1929 Variations and Double Fugue on a Theme by Arnold Schoenberg says it all. Ullman does a credible job using a strict 12-tone technique. And yet there’s a certain melodiousness to the work that makes it far more than an academic exercise.

Ullman was of Jewish descent. In 1942 he was interred at Theresienstadt. He continued to compose. Ullman wrote, “In Theresienstadt, wherein daily life one has to overcome matter through form, where everything musical stands in direct contrast to the surroundings: here is a true school for masters.” His Piano Sonata No. 7 is indeed a masterwork. The piece has moments of humor, drama, and quiet contemplation.

It was completed in August 1944 — three months before his death at Auschwitz.

This is music that deserves to be heard — and heard by a wider audience. Not because of the composer’s tragic life, but because of the quality of Ullman’s writing and Ernst’s performances.

Viktor Ullman: Piano Concerto, Op. 25
Piano Sonata No. 7; Variations and Double Fugue on a Theme by Arnold Schoenberg
Moritz Ernst, piano
Dortmunder Philharmoniker; Gabriel Feltz, conductor
Capriccio C5294

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