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Viktor Ullmann: Complete Piano Sonatas / Jeanne Golan

Release Date: 08/28/2012
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30014
Composer:  Viktor Ullmann Performer:  Jeanne Golan Number of Discs: 2
Recorded in: Stereo

Viktor Ullmann’s Piano Sonatas were written between 1936 and 1944, the first four while he free-lanced in Prague, the last three while incarcerated at Terezin. And yet, because one leads inexorably to the next, we can follow the arch of his momentous life through these pieces. He starts with a young man’s testosterone-filled homage to Mahler, and ends with a work motivated by his imprisonment – masterful and mature in its craftsmanship and deeply expressive.

"In my work at Theresienstadt, I have bloomed in musical growth and not felt myself at all inhibited: by no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon, and our endeavor with respect to Arts was commensurate with our will to live. And I am
Read more convinced that all who have worked in life and art to wrestle content into its unyielding form will say that I was right." – Viktor Ullmann

Album Credits:
Recorded January and May, 2011 at Oktaven Audio, Yonkers, New York.
Producers: Christopher Oldfather & Jeanne Golan
Recording, Editing, and Mastering: Joel Gordon

Art Direction: Oberlander Group
Piano Technician: Adam Harris
Pianos: Steinway Model D (Hamburg)
Cover Art: Small Composition I (1913) by Franz Marc

The seven Piano Sonatas of Viktor Ullmann represent the evolution of a unique musical mind during a period of tremendous European political and artistic upheaval. These works, and many more by Ullmann and others whose works were suppressed during the years of the Nazi regime, are becoming better known in recent years as artists come to recognize the intrinsic value of this music, as well as its importance to our understanding of twentieth-century music. Viktor Ullmann and others of his generation are less known to us today not because of any lack of musical quality, but because their voices were stifled by a regime and then pushed aside once again in the clamor of post-war cultural advancement. This excellent and important recording by Jeanne Golan will do much to generate greater appreciation for Ullmann’s music among musicians and music lovers everywhere. It is my hope that other musicians will follow her example by immersing themselves in the music of Ullmann and, in so doing, discover the work of a true twentieth-century master.

– James Conlon

R E V I E W S:

"And just when you think there's nothing new under the sun, along comes a highly skilled pianist that has what it takes to take on and rescue the complete works of a Czech composer that was killed in Auschwitz. With an experimental edge that still seems fresh 70 years later, one of many musicians whose work came close to being lost forever as there was no one to champion it, this work is in good hands with Golan who shows herself to be in the front ranks of contemporary players. With depth and vision to bring the work to life, this twofer is the next best thing to being there and will bring you back for more. A stunning work throughout."

– Midwest Record


Viktor Ullmann’s Piano Sonatas were written between 1936 and 1944: the first four while he free-lanced in Prague, the last three while incarcerated at Terezin. He started with a young man’s homage to Mahler and ended with a work motivated by his imprisonment—masterful and mature in its craftsmanship and deeply expressive.

-- WFMT (Chicago)


"I think there is much to learn and admire here, but this is music you can’t grasp on an initial contact—and in some cases even after repeated contacts. But it is engaging, thought-provoking, and ultimately important. My thanks, then, to Jean Golan, who has obviously spent some time with the music and appreciates it deeply—and plays it beautifully, on a beautiful instrument, the Steinway D. A powerful studio recording helps her make the best case for Viktor Ullmann, a composer who managed to create lasting art in the face of a universal tragedy."

-- Audiophile Audition


"Though [Viktor Ullmann] was fascinated by his era's most avant-garde musical techniques, even the brashest of the works presented here are never less than winning. And if this recording is any indication, even as his circumstances became more brutal, his music only became – if anything – lovelier, more polished and more playful.

One might attribute this impression, in part, to Jeanne Golan's gentle touch at the keyboard, which, along with the sonorous warmth of the recording, threatens at times to blunt the crisp edges of Ullmann's lively writing, but which also, at its best, distills his lyricism and color into something cool and pure and sweet.... This disc requires no historical justification or special pleading: it represents the music of an assured and exciting musical voice, persuasively performed and beautifully recorded."

– Alex Ambrose, WQXR


"Pianist Jeanne Golan and Steinway & Sons must be loudly cheered for producing and promoting this album devoted to the piano music of the brilliant but little known Austrian composer Viktor Ullmann. In recent years his music has become better known as musicians have come to appreciate the intrinsic value of his work, and it’s importance to our understanding of twentieth-century music. This superb and important recording by Jeanne Golan will do much to broaden appreciation of Ullmann’s music among artists and the public everywhere."

-- Micaele Sparacino,


"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."

-- Richard Whitehouse, Gramophone


The slow process of rediscovering Czech composer Viktor Ullmann’s music began with a 1975 performance of his opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis. Since then his music has been performed and recorded with greater frequency, but it’s hardly a repertoire staple. Jeanne Golan’s new recording of his complete piano sonatas is a major achievement and offers an opportunity to sample one of the tragically stifled voices of 20th century music.

Ullmann’s brief life was spent during some of the 20th century’s darkest days. He studied with Arnold Schoenberg (fear not, Ullmann’s music is not all atonal) and had a thriving career in Prague where he worked as one of composer Alexander von Zemlinsky’s deputies. The Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia changed everything. Ullmann, a Jew, was transported to the concentration camp at Terezín in 1942. Terezín or “Theresienstadt,” (as the Nazis called it), was a place where many Jewish artists and composers were imprisoned and was used by the Nazis as a propaganda tool, siting it a “model” camp. Ullmann worked at the camp as a composer, music critic, concert organizer and lecturer. In 1944 he was transported to Auschwitz and murdered in a gas chamber.

The seven sonatas written between 1936 and 1944, the first four while he was working in Prague, the last three while imprisoned at Terezín. The Prague sonatas are not all sunny nor are the Terezín sonatas relentlessly grim. Ullmann’s style is not easy to pigeonhole, (it’s one of the fascinating things about him), and each sonata has moments of surprise. Ullmann was fond of quoting folk and cabaret tunes and other kinds of familiar music, so the violence of the Sonata No. 3, Op. 26’s first two movements make the variations on a theme by Mozart in the finale all the more shocking. Speaking of quotation, the set of variations on a Hebrew theme that close the Sonata No. 7 (Ullmann’s final work), is the emotional high point of the entire set, here’s evidence of the secular Ullmann’s absorption of the Jewish music that he heard in the camp. Other sonatas feature dashes of atonality, spiky Bartok-like passages and more than a fair share of lush 20th century-styled romanticism.

Golan’s performances are remarkable and filled with abundant color and deeply felt emotion. She has the sheer muscle power, sensitivity and intelligence to make some of the violence in this music viscerally thrilling and terrifying all at once. But Golan also revels in the lyricism that Ullmann pours into so much of the music and it’s here that she opens our hearts to the composer. Ullmann’s contrapuntal writing can also get pretty dense and Golan’s performance of the complex fugues at the conclusion of the Fourth and Fifth Sonatas are studies in clarity and precision. Recording engineer Joel Gordon has done a marvelous job in capturing the big, rich sound of Golan’s Steinway D piano. Ullmann’s music is intense so I don’t recommend listening to all seven sonatas in one sitting, but go slowly and let Golan reveal the terrible beauty and inextinguishable humanity at the heart of this music.



Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) should be one of those names that rolls off of the tongue of every fancier of modernist music of the early 20th century. As it was, his life was cut tragically short in one of the concentration camps. In the 1910s, he studied theory with Josef Polnauer and piano with Eduard Steuermann. In 1918 he entered the Vienna University to study law; he was quick to enroll in a composition seminar with Arnold Schoenberg shortly thereafter. He never finished his degree, instead moving to Prague in mid-1919 where he joined the Neues Deutsches Theater, headed by Alexander Zemlinsky. Ullmann worked first as a chorus master and finally in 1922 as a conductor. He was, by this time, already experimenting with composition. All of the piano sonatas here come from later in his life, from the mid 1930s to the very end of his life in 1944. And just a quick survey of these varied works shows the many influences on the young composer and his willingness to take them all in: jazz, traditional and folk music, cabaret, classical music of the past (just listen to the fantastic little set of variations on a theme of Mozart which ends the Third Sonata), along with the music of his own day all blend together in new and interesting ways.

Jeanne Golan, throughout this recital, proves to be a very persuasive guide. She has an obvious affinity for this music and brings a lovely sense of lyricism to each and every movement. There is a rounded quality to her sound: Nothing ever sounds ugly in her hands. This sometimes works well, sometimes not. The Andante [quasi marcia funebre ] of the First Sonata benefits greatly from this: Dedicated to the memory of Mahler, its stark simplicity contrasts greatly with its surrounding movements. Golan achieves a sense of the gloomy, a tinge of the melancholic with the movement’s low registers, dark hues, and static accompaniment. The Serenade in the Fifth Sonata is another of those moments where Golan highlights that sense of the macabre, without ever losing the sensuality of the music—completely appropriate here, as this sonata was dedicated to Ullmann’s wife, Elizabeth, who had just died in the camps. But that is not all! In those moments of intense counterpoint (and there are quite a few in these sonatas) Golan’s voicing is always elegantly balanced, her textures clean and clear, and—for example in the fugue which follows the set of variations in the Seventh Sonata—there is a hint of the majestic. The pianist seems to capture the spirit of each movement well, though there are moments that could be a little less rounded, a bit grittier in effect: the opening of the Second Sonata, for example, or perhaps even more so the Scherzo in the Third Sonata, marked Allegro violente —violently. What I miss even more here is the lack of energy in the faster sections: The Toccatina in the Fifth Sonata lacks bite or drive. It should come in and out like thunder and lightning, making way for the aforementioned Serenade that follows.

Though I may have my complaints, this release made for highly enjoyable listening of some fascinating and underrepresented music, especially given the pianist’s attractive timbre and the overall glorious recorded sound. Were all modernist compositions performed this way, I suspect that we would have a lot more converts.

I believe I smell (hear?) another winner for the newly emerging Steinway & Sons label. Recommended.

FANFARE: Scott Noriega


Thank Jeanne Golan for a weighty, well-deserved tribute to Viktor Ullmann, a brilliant composer lost to Nazis at Auschwitz. Her survey of his seven piano sonatas reveals a fascinating musical personality, whose initial visceral intensity only grew darker and more complex, culminating in works of staggering expressive power, notably a large set of variations on a Hebrew melody in the final sonata. This music is challenging on several fronts, but Golan is a masterful interpreter. Grade: A

-- Zachary Lewis, Cleveland Plain Dealer


Viktor Ullmann was a victim of the Holocaust but before that he had been a leading and in some ways a radical European composer. After 1945 his music disappeared without trace. I remember well the thrilling discovery, in the 1990s, of his work and of that of some of his Jewish colleagues who also died so tragically. I had not heard of them or of their music which seems to reflect a meeting of the minds of Janácek and Schoenberg. As the years have marched on these figures have attained even more significant and have attracted more recordings.
I have occasionally wondered if Ullmann’s complete piano sonatas might appear together. Some have been recorded separately but this recording is of special interest and helps to fill a gap in our knowledge of the very important pre-war period.

The second movement of the First Sonata was composed, according to Jeanne Golan’s booklet notes, for the 25 th anniversary of Mahler’s death. More especially it was also written in the year that Alban Berg died. Its tonally-orientated chromatic language brought Berg’s Sonata of 1908 to mind. Another connection is that Ullmann was a Schoenberg pupil, which explains some of the complex counterpoint in the first movement and in later works. Like the succeeding three sonatas it is in three movements. There’s a Molto agitato, which has a sonata-form feel, then a curious Funeral march over a stuttery pedal point - this in memory of Mahler - and finally a short Presto. What we have here is a classically-orientated form in modern clothes.
Golan has taken an especial interest in this composer and plays his music wherever possible. She writes about meeting a pianist - Alice Sommer, aged 108 - who reminisced with her about Viktor Ullmann. Sommer recounted that the middle movement of the Second Sonata uses a then well-known Czech folksong. As Ullmann acknowledged this song was also employed by Janácek. To me it is incongruously set amidst a first movement plagued with a disturbed, emotional ambivalence. There’s also a somewhat ‘rollicking’ compound-time finale marked Prestisssimo which feels a little slower in this performance. At present I find this rather eclectic sonata less than convincing.
The Third Sonata written only one year later moves us forward again. I’ve noted that the First sonata had a Mahler movement and the Second a folk-song/Janácek segment. The Third has, as a finale a theme and variations concluding with a fugue on a simple child-like tune by Mozart. This comes as something of a shock in that the first movement, although not atonal as Jeanne Golan suggests in her notes, is certainly free in its tonal ambiguities. The second movement is a rather pokey little Scherzo in search of a key. Yet the Sonata, although eclectic is not as stylistically disparate as the Second. The Mozart theme is subjected to a wide-range of treatments seemingly covering all twentieth-century musical styles but it evinces a greater sense of cohesion with the rest of the work.
I haven’t as yet mentioned counterpoint which is an Ullmann feature. The Fourth Sonata - the longest so far - has two contrasting fugues. The notes tell us that “much of the sonata recalls Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. In so far as Ullmann’s middle movement is a slow, quiet fugue I agree, but the finale is a tour de force of three fugal subjects subjected to vigorous treatment allowing for an exciting climax. The opening movement reminded me of Gideon Klein’s 1943 Sonata in its spiky language. Both Klein and Ullmann were to get to know each other very well in the year or so after this 4 th Sonata; both were dispatched to Theresienstadt (Terezin). It was there that Ullmann wrote his remaining sonatas.
The back of the CD case quotes Ullmann’s own words found in his 1944 book Goethe and Ghetto - a great title that - in which he says, almost shockingly, that at Theresienstadt he had “bloomed in musical growth and not felt myself inhibited … by no means did we sit weeping on the banks of Babylon”. I can well believe this when I hear much of the Fifth Sonata. It begins with a Beethovenian idea and although a little episodic it is quite fun and witty. The work is dedicated to his wife Elizabeth who had just died in the camp. The second movement is a lonely Andante, which I found most moving. Its mood is soon squashed by a brief and eccentric Toccatina. This is a five movement piece: a pattern which, in her somewhat odd notes, Golan says Schoenberg investigated; I can’t quite find out where. Ullmann now gives us a little Serenade which again I find episodic. Its fantasy-like form is excitable and full of life. The finale is, as in the previous sonata, a fugue but not an especially memorable one. I find this odd and disquieting but also one madly compelling. You can hear this work in a reconstruction by Bernhard Wulff as Ullmann’s Symphony No.1 on Glossa 922208.
This Sonata might have had another movement had Ullmann not withdrawn it and inserted an orchestral version of it in his opera Kaiser von Atlantis. It appears as a Menuett - subtitled Totentanz - which is included as an addendum on CD 2. It is nothing like Liszt and although it’s a march a “mixture of the cabaret and the macabre” in this performance seems to be thoughtful - even a little melancholy.
The Sixth Sonata, written in the same year, is the first to be in four movements. Golan’s notes describe it as “infused with language of Gershwin”. If she is referring to that composer’s Three Preludes then I vaguely agree, especially in the first movement. That said, a few jazzy elements can clearly be detected alongside added sixths and a profusion of syncopated rhythms. It is difficult to pin down a real influence. This is a very approachable work but, and I had no score, it seems to be a beast of a challenge for the pianist. The third and fourth movements have an enormous number of technical and musical challenges. These are wonderfully surmounted by Golan who makes the Sixth Sonata, and indeed each of the sonatas seem so effortless.
The Seventh Sonata has a valedictory ‘signature’. It was Ullmann’s last work before being transported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. As the five-movement sonata progresses (the longest in this set) a threatening mood begins to emerge. The first movement, marked Allegro, is rather even-tempered and pleasing. The following March has an uncertain and at times sinister air. In the Adagio a sense of quiet hopelessness appears. The following Scherzo never settles down; in fact it quotes a passage from a musical, which, apparently Ullmann had conducted a decade previously. This was no doubt a memory of happier times. A sense of the inevitable haunts the finale, another set of variations, this time on a Yiddish theme. It is treated affectionately and culminates in a fine fugue, the best in the set, on three ideas. These involve a Hussite patriotic tune, a Lutheran chorale and the BACH motif. A triumphant ending, overcoming all odds, is attempted but perhaps inevitably fails to convince. Ultimately this is a significant and troubling work that was again reconstructed into a symphony by Bernhard Wulff in 1989 - perhaps as Ullmann had intended.
Golan’s notes are excellent in terms of talking about the composer but rather brief and at times baffling when it comes to the sonatas. It is wonderful that she plays this music so convincingly and if smiling through adversity is a virtue and pursuing the creative flame through every vicissitude is recognized as an aspect of genius, then Viktor Ullmann deserves to be performed regularly. He is a fascinating figure but one who was unfulfilled and whose greatest works died with his imagination in the Holocaust.
-- Gary Higginson, MusicWeb International
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