Viktor Ullmann, once a barely a name, seems suddenly to have risen to belated prominence in London musical life. The setting-up, by pianist Jacqueline Cole, of the Ullmann Foundation (see elsewhere in this newsletter) is only part of the story, but it was the reason for a performance of Ullmann's Seventh Piano Sonata (1944) at St John's, Smith Square, on 25 September - played, of course, by Jacqueline Cole.
She began with the world premiere of Byzantine Mosaic by the Serbian composer Svetislav Bozic (born in 1954). It's a nine-piece suite, unashamedly tonal - or, rather, modal - and flushed through with echoes of Balkan folk music: it sounded rather like house-trained Janáček. Each movement 'carries the name and reflects like a tone icon the daily life and service of nine of Serbia's Orthodox monastic communities', according to the (unsigned) programme note. Bozic's blend of tolling bell sounds (the music is well written for the instrument, and exploits the bottom register particularly well) and eastern melisma is unarguably attractive, but at around 40 minutes in length, with preciously little variety of texture or tempo, it soon outlasted its welcome.
The Suite, Op. 13, by Pavel Haas, like Ullmann a prisoner in Terezín, predates Haas' incarceration: it was composed in 1935. More clearly than the more polished later works by which Haas is generally remembered, it shows the ingredients that went into what, thanks to the gas ovens in Auschwitz, we have to call Haas' mature style: the influence of his teacher Janáček, a flavour of French music, a hint of Hindemith and, in the finale, a generous helping of jazz (through the example of his Prague contemporary Jaroslav Jeek?). What's surprising about the work is how often it pre-echoes procedures that weren't to become common for decades: it's free in its use of polytonality and dissonance, and its motoric rhythmic patterns nod to minimalism ante diem.
Ullmann's Seventh Sonata likewise bears its antecedents openly: in the first of its five movements, the stamp of Mahler (another Czech composer, of course) is plain to hear. The Seventh Sonata, like Ullmann's Fifth, was plainly conceived with the orchestra in mind: although he wrote it for performance as a piano work (there was, of course, no chance of assembling a symphony orchestra in Terezín), the music bristles with indications for scoring, and it's virtually impossible to hear it on the piano without noticing where the orchestral colouring would have worked to its advantage: repeated filler chords, spare lines in the treble...
In the third movement we smell the air of a familiar planet, as Ullmann deploys the lessons he learned from Schoenberg. It's in the barnstorming finale that the breadth of Ullmann's vision is revealed. It's a set of variations and concluding fugue on what had become an Israeli folksong, a setting of words by the Russian-Jewish poetess Rachel composed in Berlin in 1932 by Yehuda Sharett; and the fugue makes it clear that this is a work of protest: it hints at the Slovakian national anthem and quotes the Hussite hymn Ye who are warriors of God and Nun danket alle Gott, as well as working in the BACH motif.
Cole gave it a fiery, full-toned performance, the quality of her playing underlined by the Beethoven sonata which had preceded it (Op. 10, No. 2). I remember, some twenty-plus years back, hearing Ronald Smith playing the 'Waldstein' Sonata and being surprised at discovering how fine a musician he was: before then I had heard him only in Alkan and similarly out-of-the-way material where no yardstick was available. Similarly with Jacqueline Cole: her Beethoven was useful reassurance to those unfamiliar with Haas and Ullmann (most of her rather thin audience) and Bozic (all of us bar the pianist and composer) that she had done her composers proud.© Martin Anderson, International Forum for Suppressed Music