13 May 2002 Musical Opinion

Musical Opinion, May 2002

Review by Dr Malcolm Miller

St James’s Church, Piccadilly, 13 May 2002 : Jacqueline Cole

Almost sixty years after its composition in the harrowing conditions of the Terezin Concentration Camp, the masterly Seventh Piano Sonata by Schönberg’s Czech pupil Viktor Ullmann at last received a stirring UK Premiere by the young British pianist Jacqueline Cole, a former student at the Yehudi Menuhin School. The recital, at a well-filled St James’s Church in Piccadilly on 13 May, formed part of a stimulating series titled Beethoven and Suppressed Composers, presented by the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe, supported by the Jewish Music Institute’s Millennial Awards, with funds from the National Lottery. Each recital includes a major piano work by Beethoven coupled with music by a modern European composer who suffered or who perished as a direct result of Nazi or Soviet oppression.

Viktor Ullmann’s best known work is the satirical opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis, composed in the Terezin Concentration Camp, used by the Nazis as a kind of showcase to where, along with colleagues Hans Krasa, Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein, a vibrantly creative musical life was maintained under almost inhuman conditions from 1942 until their deportation to Auschwitz in 1944. Revived in the 1980s it was one of the first works to bring public attention to this treasure-trove of forgotten masterpieces that testified both to creative genius and the indomitability of the human spirit.

Ullmann’s last three Piano Sonatas were composed in Terezin, the Seventh Sonata being completed just a few weeks before his tragic end. Dedicated to his three children, it is cast on a large canvas, in five contrasting movements, its most compelling moments infused with Scriabinesque colour and a Janáček-like momentum. The expressive heart is a moving Adagio. Here Jacqueline Cole richly projected the sinewy harmonies that echo the style of Ullmann’s teacher, the great Viennese progressive Arnold Schönberg. There are also hints of Kurt Weill in the spiky rhythms of the bittersweet Alla Marzia and Scherzo, shot through with ironic waltz fragments. The climax is a poignant yet ultimately triumphal Variations and Fugue on a Hebrew Theme, in which the biting dissonance in myriad textural guises is guided by strong tonal directionality, a powerful affirmation of Ullmann’s artistry as of his Jewish identity. Jacqueline Cole, whose teachers included Yalta Menuhin and both Yvonne Loriod and Olivier Messiaen, impelled Ullmann’s vision with dramatic intensity and virtuosity. Her artistry can be heard again on 25 September at St Johns, Smith Square, in a programme which includes Ullmann’s Seventh Sonata and two Serbian works receiving their World Premieres.