Listening to the piano sonatas of Viktor Ullmann from beginning to end, with the grim facts of his life in mind, is unbearable. He was encircled for years by the rapidly closing noose of the Third Reich: a Silesian Jew threatened by the Nazis in Germany, he fled to Prague; after the Nazis took Prague, he was sent to Theresienstadt, a sort of publicity-stunt concentration camp designed to paper over the Holocaust with a sham façade of art and culture; two years later, he was sent to Auschwitz and gassed.
Though he 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.
But the writing itself has a surprisingly light touch. For instance, while the title of Ullmann's Totentanz, an "outtake" from the Fifth Sonata based on material from his final, posthumous opera, might promise an ugly, gruesome sense of irony, Death's dance is surprisingly wistful and bittersweet — in historical context, crushingly so.
And it may be impossible, even ill-advised, to consider Ullmann's music outside of its historical context. The composer and the intended audience for his final works were under a collective death sentence. But it would do him a disservice as an artist to view his music only through the window of his unforgivable end. 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.