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Viktor ULLMANN (1898-1944)
Piano Concerto, op.25 (1939) [17:53]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor, op.37 (1800-03) [37:06]
Herbert Schuch (piano)
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Olari Elts
rec. Cologne Philharmonie, 21-24 March 2011. DDD
OEHMS CLASSICS OC833 [55:12]

Why this particular pairing? There seems no obvious connection between Beethoven and Viktor Ullmann, nor between these chalk-and-cheese concertos, other than the presence of a piano. The accompanying booklet notes shed little light on the matter. The most likely answer, of course, is that by coupling Ullmann with Beethoven, Oehms hope, quite reasonably, to stimulate both public interest and sales - not necessarily the case if another relatively unknown composer had stood in for Beethoven. Ironically, it is for the Ullmann that collectors are likely to come. Whilst there is no pressing need for yet another reading, however fine - and this one is as good as many - of Beethoven's Third Concerto, Ullmann still needs much wider exposure.
 
On the other hand, there is a danger that juxtaposition with Beethoven will invite direct comparison, however illogical the exercise. Beside the supreme lyrical genius and expansiveness of Beethoven's Concerto, Ullmann's short, bustling work may throw up questions regarding the wisdom of acquiring a disc for eighteen minutes of second-tier music.
 
However, that is harsh on Ullmann. For a start, how many composers do not appear second-rate compared with Beethoven? Also, aside from the grim circumstances for a Jew in Nazi-annexed Prague, Ullmann was writing in a very different age. His Concerto is idiosyncratic for sure, with its three-minute third movement followed by a two-minute finale, and the hammered block chords which the composer all but throws at the listener in the opening seconds. It is also dazzling, dramatic and nowhere near as bleak as it ought by rights to be. In fact, with its odd but listener-friendly blend of Prokofiev and Ravel, it is altogether approachable, giving little indication of Ullmann's background as a former pupil of Schoenberg, nor of the terrible backdrop against which he was writing. In his dedication to the Slovakian pianist Juliette Aranyi, Ullmann described the concerto as a "Dionysian work to the venerable mistress of Apollonian piano-playing". Sadly, Aranyi suffered a similar fate to Ullmann, exterminated in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz following internment at Theresienstadt.
 
Though soloist Herbert Schuch has already appeared on a few Oehms discs of solo and chamber music, this is his debut recording with orchestra, and a thoroughly impressive one it is, elegant and expressive in the Beethoven, vivacious and virtuosic in the Ullmann. The WDR Symphony Orchestra are an orchestra of considerable pedigree and experience, and in Estonia-born Olari Elts' capable hands they give good accounts of these two quite different works. Theirs is not essential Beethoven perhaps, but it is certainly an appealing one; whilst their Ullmann is the new standard.
 
Sound quality is good. The German-English booklet notes are detailed and well written, with much room given over to performer biographies. The disc is unequivocally on the short side, which, given its fairly high retail price, may deter some. The potential market for this disc must indeed be very small, yet those in it who make a financial commitment will not be disappointed.
 
Byzantion
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