Gerd Albrecht / Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra / Viktor Ullmann

Viktor Ullmann: Symphony No. 1; Von meiner Jugend

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The continuing revival of music written by Jewish composers imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps counts as a significant phenomenon in concert music at the beginning of the 21st century, having moved beyond memorial status to an exploration of a body of important works that were almost wholly lost for decades. Viktor Ullmann came from an Austro-Hungarian Jewish family that had converted to Roman Catholicism; this did not save him from the full impact of German cultural censorship in the late '30s, imprisonment at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he continued to compose, and finally the gas chambers at Auschwitz. The two symphonies recorded here are reconstructions by scholar Bernhard Wulff of two piano sonatas composed by Ullmann at Theresienstadt, the latter shortly before his deportation to Auschwitz. Notes by the composer on his handwritten scores indicate that he planned to turn them into orchestral works. They are marvelous pieces that would succeed on the concert stage entirely indepedently of their terrible story. Ullmann was a student of Schoenberg, but the models for these works are Strauss (in the two small comic overtures that frame the first symphony) and especially Mahler. If you can imagine Mahler in miniature -- a difficult task, but one that gives insight into the ingenuity of these pieces -- you have an idea of the flavor of Ullmann's music. The pieces juxtapose formal elements with dances, songs, and folk-like tunes in the way that Mahler did, but on a tight, formally cohesive canvas instead of Mahler's sprawling conception. Ullmann's harmonic language is generally more dissonant than Mahler's, but he does not follow Schoenberg toward the dissolution point of tonality. The music turns deadly serious in the final "Variations and Fugue on a Hebrew Folk Song" of the Symphony No. 2, a chilling piece that seems to indicate that the composer knew what was coming next. The performances here by the Brussels Philharmonic under Gerd Albrecht are obviously a labor of careful study and commitment. Strongly recommended.

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