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ULLMANN: Schwer ist’s, das Schöne zu Lassen

CD Button Troupová; Dusek (piano). Texts and translations. ArcoDiva UP 0176 2 131 (2)

Recordings Ullmann Cover 316
Critics Choice Button 1015 

GERMAN–CZECH COMPOSER Viktor Ullmann wrote some of the best twentieth-century art songs you’ve never heard. Interred at Theresienstadt when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, Ullmann was one of the great musical casualties of the Holocaust. The superb quality of songs included in this double-disc collection—all of his surviving works for voice and piano—makes the sense of tragedy surrounding his numerous lost works all the more acute.

Ullmann, who studied with Schönberg, wrote music that is poised right on the precipice of atonality without taking the plunge. The composer seems to have been somehow conscious of his place in history even amid uncertainty as to whether his work would survive at all. Even in the songs that are comfortably tonal, he gives the impression of someone who has glimpsed the great beyond and returned with dispatches. His music shows the influence of Mahler, Berg and Zemlinsky (another teacher), but in a French cycle such as the extraordinary Six Sonnets by Louïse Labé, he also channels the spirits of Fauré and Debussy. Ullmann’s distinctive harmonic language is especially potent in “Marienlied,” from Geistliche Lieder; the pungent sound palette he brings to lines such as “none of all can e’er describe thee as thee does see the soul of mine” sounds indeed like a vision of something that can’t quite be put into words. “Wo hast du all die Schönheit hergenommen,” from Fünf Liebeslieder, is a similarly effective musical depiction of something wondrous. 

In stark contrast, but also quite representative, are the two Chinesische Lieder, the first of which (“Wanderer erwacht”) is spare, bleak and dissonant, with a distilled intensity that is almost Webernian. We also hear three remarkable Sonnets from the Portuguese, in Rilke’s translations of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems. (Browning published these as if they were foreign translations, but they are actually her own original work.) Ullmann dedicated his settings to Zemlinsky, but he outdoes his teacher in terms of visionary tonal expansion. The disc’s title track, which translates as “It is Hard to Leave Beauty,” is a setting of a startlingly powerful poem by Albert Steffen, and it shows the composer at his most harmonically probing and textually illuminating.

Czech soprano Irena Troupová, who began her career as an early-music specialist, is a gratifyingly clear exponent of these challenging, grippingly individual songs. They demand complete musical and intonational assurance, which she provides in abundance. She’s comfortable with the angular intervallic leaps of “Aus dem Häuschen in den Garten,” another Steffen verse, and a song such as “Sonnenuntergang,” with its treacherously high middle section, could easily have sounded shrill in the hands of an artist with less vocal control. Troupová even sounds right at home with the Drei Jiddische Lieder, the standout of which is “A Mejdel in die Johren,” with its mix of tragedy, reproach and humor. Pianist Jan Dusek matches her colors and renders Ullmann’s crunchy harmonies with fullness and understanding. This is a major release.  —Joshua Rosenblum 

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