The Power of Alexander Ullman’s Pianism

ItalyItaly Alexander Ullman (piano) plays Bach, Haydn, Schubert, Debussy, Stravinsky and Liszt.  The UK Keyboard Charitable Trust in collaboration with The Pontino Festival at the Baronial Hall of Palazzo Caetani, Fondi.  24.07.2014 (JB)

Alex Ullman with Jack Buckley Photo courtesy of Christopher Axworthy.
Alex Ullman with Jack Buckley Photo courtesy of Christopher Axworthy.

It is not that Ullman is going to be one of the world’s great pianists.  He is that now.  If ever you have the chance to hear Alexander Ullman, don’t pass it by.

I wrote those words on this website after last hearing Ullman on 8 July 2010.  Three years later,  now at the ripe age of twenty-three- and after the course with Leon Fleisher at the Curtis Institute and Masterclasses with Elissò  Virsaladze in Sermoneta, it is not that he has improved,  he has positively exploded.  Fleisher and Virsaladze have not put anything new into his playing, but what they have got out of him almost beggars belief.  The amazing talent is in steely command of everything he touches.  And as I shall try to show, he touches a great deal.

The programme opened with the Bach C sharp minor Prelude and Fugue from Book One.  These notes poured out of the keyboard with the rich consistency of double cream: voluptuous tones, more familiar in romantic repertory of lesser pianists, but although there were admirably studied changes of textural colouring, the whole thing was shot through with a stunning precision.  Glenn Gould comes to mind as the nearest comparison but even Gould didn’t have these daring and convincing couplings.

Next up was the Haydn Sonata in D Hob. XVI: 51 –a little jewel in two moments.  It’s all too easy to make Haydn sound like minor Mozart.  Not here, ladies and gentlemen.  The uniquely shaped phrases can sound contrived in the hands of an inexperienced musician.  Here they were dispatched with an almost careless-sounding, impudent ease. Papa Haydn’s humour spoke clearly.  Fleisher may have awakened Ullman’s angels, but he has also awakened the boy’s devils.  What an asset these are!  I shall need to come back to them below,  for of all his assets,  these are among his foremost. And does he ever know well how to tease this mischief out of his fingers.  Papa Haydn would have hugged him.

Schubert would almost certainly have found a firm ally in the English philosopher, John Gray, who believes that the pursuit of happiness is a complete waste of time and that our energies ought to be engaged with more useful objectives.  While Schubert is unmistakably a died-in-the-wool romantic, his romanticism never goes very far without being shot through with pathos.  But in the Ullman reading of the “Little” A major Sonata D 664, even before the pathos gets a chance to appear –in the first allegro– phrases get a gruff Beethovenesque whack from the knuckle, which all but tumbles the piece off the keyboard.  This is shocking treatment.  I can’t pretend to go along with it.  But it comes served up with the Ullman unquestionable authority. Those devils again! No arguing with that! And besides, I always bow to superior minds.

More dare-devil, highly polished virtuosity was brought out again for first Debussy Study in C from Book One.  We now understood how Nietzsche must have felt when he came up gasping for breath at the end of the first Tristan.  Though in retrospect, it’s easy to see that the whole recital was leading up to Stravinsky’s virtuosic arrangement of the three movements from Petrushka.  The piece was written for Arthur Rubinstein, who found it too difficult to perform.  Not only does Ullman rise to the challenge, he rises above it with a unique and profoundly musical virtuosity. There is no can’t-play in the Ullman canon.  War is declared in defiant tones which are sexy and also not a little perverse.  There is a real sense in which we meet with the perfection of the finest pornography.  By this time he was twisting the audience round his little finger.  And he is an accomplished flirt.  Our joint hairs stood up on our joint heads in disbelief.

When I asked him to sign my programme at the end of the concert, I inquired if he had Russian blood in his veins.  Worse, he said with a big grin, It’s Slovenian. (see photo)

Christopher Axworthy, who is the Liaison Officer in Italy for the UK based Keyboard Charitable Trust, and had arranged this concert (one of three to promote outstanding young pianists) in the Baronial Hall of Palazzo Caetani in Fondi, in collaboration with the Pontino Festival, asked Alex if he would, after the blood and thunder of Petrushka,  play a contrasting encore of Liszt’s un sospiro (the third of the Three Concert Etudes). Alex said that it was some time since he had played it but he hoped it was still there in his fingers.

After the show, an old  woman, visibly moved to tears by this magical sigh, was trying hard to find the right word in English to describe her experience. Alex tried to help her out. He said, If you’re worried about that bit that you didn’t recognise (of course, she wasn’t!) please don’t be: I just had a sudden lapse of memory, so I improvised a bit until I got back into the piece. Exactly what Franz Liszt would have done, thought I. I wasn’t surprised that he walked off with the First Prize at the Budapest International Liszt Competition.  Neither was he. I hope he may be offering us the Liszt Sonata at his Teatro Ghione Recital in Rome in January.

Jack Buckley


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