Unable to find work in London or South Africa, Ullmann was in Prague after the German invasion of March 1939. He was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 where fortunately he was asked to work as a critic and concert organizer in the “model” concentration camp – a sly Nazi propaganda showcase project - assisting in performances and lecturing on various topics, a place where, in his own words, “anything connected with the muses is in utter contrast to the surroundings”. His compositional output there was large – three piano sonatas, a string quartet, Lieder, orchestral works, an opera “The Emperor of Atlantis” and arrangements of Yiddish and Hebrew songs. In addition to his concert reviews there, he also wrote extensively in words – essays, an opera libretto and “The Strange Passenger”, poems and aphorisms in which he discloses his misery, ambivalence regarding his Jewish identity and his cynicism. Ullmann was deported in one of the last transports to Auschwitz in October 1944, where he perished.
After 1945, Viktor Ullmann’s works sank into oblivion, to be rediscovered in the 1990s. Of late, there has been renewed interest in his seven sonatas. Israeli-Dutch keyboard performer Michael Tsalka recorded all seven of Viktor Ullmann’s piano sonatas in 2014 for the Paladino Music label. They are played on a 1912 Steinway, now in the historical instrument collection of the Nydahl Collection, Stockholm, Sweden; it is an instrument “which, by virtue of its individualized registers and distinct timbers, served well to bring back to life the sonic imaginarium of Ullmann’s piano sonatas” in Tsalka’s words. Dr. Tsalka and painter Corinne Duchesne were both artists-in-residence at the Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Red Wing, Minnesota at the time he was learning the sonatas. The painting displayed on the back of the liner note booklet was done by Duchesne as she listened to Tsalka rehearsing the sonatas.
Ullmann’s seven piano sonatas, composed between 1936 and 1944, trace the composer’s stylistic thinking and development, displaying the influence of Schoenberg, Béla Bartók, Alban Berg and other composers; but what is also highly relevant to both performer and listener is the political and artistic climate in Europe during which they were composed and which they reflect. The first four sonatas were written when Ullmann was still in Prague. From the very first notes of his playing of Sonata No.1 opus 10, one senses how naturally Tsalka adapts Ullmann’s own modernistic language of 1936 to his own mindset in 2014. Melodic voices take on individual and conversational reality, the Andante funeral march (2nd movement of Sonata No.1), written in memory of Mahler, emerges as soul-searching and spontaneous. As in Sonata No.1, and, in fact, in all seven sonatas, the composer grapples with the issues of the pull of tonality and what lies beyond it in Sonata No.2 opus 19 (1939). Following Ullmann’s use of a Czech folksong in the 2nd movement, Tsalka takes the final Prestissimo-marked movement leisurely enough to highlight its fine detail and underlying pessimistic searching, as it plumbs the depths of the mind. In Piano Sonata No.3 opus 26b (1940), the pianist presents more demonic elements, the 2nd movement - Scherzo Allegro violente (prestissimo), unsmiling and cynical, offers few comforting moments. As to the enigmatic 3rd movement – Variations on a Theme of Mozart – Tsalka states the naïve melody with simple, positive eloquence, presenting the gamut of styles of its intriguing transformations as the composer pushes the boundaries of tonality, leaving it and returning to it. Ullmann dedicated Sonata No.4 opus 38 (1949) to pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, who had premiered his Sonata No.2 in 1940. Herz-Sommer (1903-2014) survived Theresienstadt. Tsalka presents and contrasts the alternating moods of Sonata No.4’s opening Allegro vivace movement – the despondent, downcast opening mood set against a more Romantic mood, wistful rather than brooding, concluding the movement with a pastel-hued major gesture. The middle movement – a contemplative fugue, as interesting and delicate as it is joyless, is played with eloquence. Tsalka’s articulate and clean playing shows the listener with sensitivity through the complexities of the 3rd movement, a fugal tour-de-force, addressing and highlighting its somber shapes and nuances, ending with a major chord.
The last three sonatas were composed in Theresienstadt. There Ullmann wrote: “In my work in Theresienstadt I have bloomed in musical growth and not felt myself at all inhibited…” proof of his belief in the supreme value and strength of artistic creativity. Sonata No.5 opus 45 (1943) “Von meiner Jugend” (From my Youth) was dedicated to the memory of Ullmann’s wife Elisabeth, who had just died in the camp. Tsalka’s reading of it brings to life each witty, playful gesture of the positive C-major/atonal first movement, punctuated by its sentimental tonal episodes and lavished with a sense of wellbeing. The composer’s bleak situation colors the following Andante with ghostly musings, Tsalka’s small pauses on introducing new phrases giving the piece a sense of searching. Following energetic playing of the cynical, miniature, densely compiled Toccatina, Tsalka takes us into the Serenade and the composer’s memories of youth with a nostalgic Slavic folk melody; this is colored with sad, tender and occasionally dark moments. More sinister and mercurial is the fugal Finale. The pianist’s playing of the first movement of Piano Sonata No.6 opus 49a (1943) takes the listener from elements of jazz, through lyricism, then intensity, finally settling in into an introverted, almost vulnerable mood. Following Ullmann’s inspired theme and variations (2nd movement) the work forges on to two movements of huge technical demands. Sonata No.7 (1944), dedicated to three of his children (a fourth child died in Theresienstadt) and bearing no opus number, was the last of Ullmann’s works written before he was transported to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Yet the opening Allegro movement, reflecting the late German Romantic style, is exhilarating and life-affirming. Tsalka’s playing supports its energy, stability and the affirming message of the major tonality. With the ominous message of the Alla marcia (2nd movement), however, most of this optimism is replaced by a sense of fatalism, of isolation and inner despair, also expressed in the atonal language of the following Adagio and of a Scherzo deprived of joy and peace, save for a quote from a musical – a flash of happy past memories. In the final movement, rich in the elements threaded through Ullmann’s musical, emotional and intellectual life (references to Bach, to Christianity versus Judaism, folk music, theme and variation form, counterpoint, the fugue, tonal versus atonal writing) Michael Tsalka opens with the tender, lush playing of a Yiddish tune. The work concludes on a triumphant chord.
Michael Tsalka has made an in-depth study of Ullmann’s music and life. His recording of all seven sonatas offers the listener the opportunity of following developments in Ullmann’s writing over the final eight years of his life. The 1912 Steinway piano, with its fresh, open sound and wide range of timbral and expressive possibilities, was an optimal choice for this music. Tsalka’s articulate and sensitive reading gives each sonata palpable musical life, the works coming across as “contemporary” and as relevant to current musical thought today as when they were written. This is a great and lasting strength of Viktor Ullmann’s writing. Michael Tsalka finds a fine balance between his understanding of the background and circumstances of each sonata and his objective playing of some of the finest piano music composed in the first half of the 20th century.
An artist of great versatility, Tsalka performs repertoire from early Baroque- to contemporary music on keyboard instruments from harpsichord, clavichord, fortepiano, chamber organ, to historic pianos and the modern piano. His performance schedule takes him all over the world, where he also holds master classes.