ULLMANN: Symphony No. 2 in D (1944). 6 Lieder op. 17 (1937). Don Quixote tanzt Fandango (1944). Symphony No. 1 "Von meiner Jugend" (1943). Juliane Banse, soprano; Gürzenich Orchestra of the Cologne Philharmonic/James Conlon.
Capriccio 67017 {DDD} TT: 62:29

Fremde Passagiere ("Estranged Passengers") -- In Search of Viktor Ullmann.
Gürzenich Orchestra of the Cologne Philharmonic/James Conlon.
Capriccio DVD {NTSC-Dolby-DVD 5} 93505 TT: 80:00

Interest in German and Mittel-Europa music from between the world wars has recently grown, with most of the activity settling in on the so-called "degenerate" or "suppressed" composers—those killed or driven out or in some way silenced by the Third Reich. We have seen a concomitant rise in the number of recorded works by such composers as Zemlinsky, Toch, Schrecker, Krenek, Schulhoff, Hartmann, Korngold, Weill, Eisler, and now Ullmann.

Viktor Ullmann, like Eisler, studied with Schoenberg. Also like Eisler, he never became the Compleate Dodecaphonist. Indeed, he probably sounds closer to early tonal Schoenberg and to the European, non-Brechtian Weill (also influenced by Schoenberg) than to anybody else. Richard Strauss and Mahler—particularly the grotesque side of the latter composer—also lurk in the background. After a respectable career, the Nazis sent Ullmann to Terezin (Theresienstadt) in 1942, and he was gassed in Auschwitz in 1944. He did, however, manage to compose in the camps. Ironically, the work of his last two years is mostly what survives. This output, particularly the opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis ("The Emperor of Atlantis"), reawoke interest in the composer as part of the general scholarly interest in the art produced by the prisoners of Terezin.

All the works here are, to one extent or another, reconstructions. Bernhard Wulff orchestrated Ullmann's piano sonatas No. 5 and No. 7 to produce the two symphonies. The manuscript clearly shows that Ullmann intended to orchestrate these works. Don Quixote tanzt Fandango ("Don Quixote dances the fandango") exists in short score, elaborated again by Wulff. The original score to the 6 Lieder of 1937 was for voice and piano. Ullmann intended to orchestrate the songs but never got around to it. The orchestration here was made in 1994 by Geert van Keulen. At least one reviewer has complained that the orchestrations aren't sumptuous enough. I can see the point in the songs, but not in the Terezin works.

Every piece here is extremely well-made, and a vein of poetry runs through besides. I simply don't care for the general idiom and believe it takes someone extra-special, like Weill or Schoenberg, to break through the longueurs. The 6 Lieder show a real understanding of the voice and set the texts without a clumsy stumble or a cheap resort to essentially glorified recitative. But you've only to think of a really great song—Mahler's Revelge or Fauré's Notre amour, for example -- to realize that none of Ullmann's songs are particularly memorable. I doubt many will turn off their CD player humming the tunes.

The fancifully-titled Don Quixote tanzt Fandango owes a bit to Richard Strauss, particularly to Eulenspiegel, but largely without the vivacity of the model. It does come to life about two-thirds in, when the actual fandango appears, which makes you wonder about all the stuff that went on before.

The "symphonies" are undoubtedly the best things on the program. Both have five movements apiece and show the strong influence of Mahler. One might even think of these works as Mahler condensed, and without the transcendence. The fact of the symphonies is triumph enough. The first is an obvious testament of the camp. As concentrated and sharply-detailed as a nightmare, it's filled with extra-musical messages. The first movement quotes "O du lieber Augustin, alles ist hin" ("O you dear Augustine, everything is over"). Reference to a poem by Karl Kraus, "Vor dem Schlaf" ("Before Sleep"), heads the second movement "Nocturne"—talking about the uncertainty of the future and the "sorrowing face" on the wallpaper. So many of the themes bear a resemblance to and have the same obsessive quality of the "Dies irae." Ullmann makes art to make sense of what has happened, not only to him, but to those with him. Unfortunately, the work describes mainly a sadistic, hopeless world.

The second symphony, according to the liner notes, is the last work Ullmann completed before being shipped to Auschwitz, where he was killed two days later. The sadness of the first symphony remains, but here and there light manages to peek through. The first movement is comparatively tender and radiant, with particularly lovely passages for solo violin. But Ullmann still smuggles in his extra-musical hints. A grotesque march quotes the tyrant's theme from Ullmann's musical drama The Fall of the Antichrist. The finale uses a "Hebrew" folk-song, "Rachel," as the basis for a set of variations and a perfunctory fugue and also manages to weave in a Hussite song (Ullmann, though born in present-day Poland, considered himself Czech), part of the chorale "Nun danket alle Gott," and the B-A-C-H motif (B flat -A-C-B natural)—perhaps a vision of hope for the healing of Ullmann's culture. For me, the "Adagio" of the second symphony affected me the most powerfully of any of the symphonies' movements, but the fever—the insistence that all of this matters—running through every movement is enough to lift the works to a level of interest beyond what music alone can give. They become icons and testimony of a time of archetypal evil and unfathomably heroic.

The video released as a pendant to the CD details Ullmann's depressing history and the horrible fate of his children, who escaped the camps but contracted severe mental problems. Along the way, some short pieces are played. James Conlon talks of Ullmann's music in the context of his time. He tries to make a case as to why the music isn't better known and in doing so raises my hackles. It's part of the catechism "All Schoenberg's fault"—catechism, because as usual with those who make the claim, absolutely no evidence other than the anecdotal backs up the assertion. It's as if a student Conlon heard a professor bad-mouthing, say, Korngold in order to raise up Schoenberg (a dubious strategy, by the way), and failed to realize that first, not all professors thought this way, and second, professors aren't the only folks who decide what music gets played and listened to. One of these days, I'd like to see someone try a real history of twentieth-century musical taste—one based on primary materials, rather than repeating what somebody else said or selecting evidence to justify a prejudice. The video concludes with, I believe, the CD performance of the Symphony No. 2, to a static visual accompaniment. Why somebody thought this was a good idea, I haven't a clue.

On the other hand, Conlon does a bang-up job on the CD. The performances cement his growing reputation as a specialist of interwar Austro-German post-Romantic music. Not only do the players get the notes, they impart the urgency behind the notes. As I say, even though I don't particularly care for Ullmann's idiom, Conlon makes me care for the music. This is a worthy addition to his Hartmann disc (Capriccio 10893). Juliane Banse, a full-voiced soprano with a mezzo-like timbre sings the very difficult songs with apparent ease and naturalness, but it's to some extent a thankless task. I'd love to hear her sing some Richard Strauss.

S.G.S. (August 2003)