The Amazing Mr Ullman
Alexander Ullman at the Muzieckgebouw in Eindhoven
A standing ovation at the end of a magnificent recital for the winner of this years Utrecht International Piano Competition.
Previous winners include such artists as Vitaly Pisarenko and Mariam Batsashvili.
Alexander Ullman having won the Liszt/Bartok competition in Budapest 6 years ago. He is now at 26,the only British pianist to have won both prestigious competitions dedicated to Liszt.
A prime example indeed of how the right early training can allow British artists to hold their heads high in the very competitive international field.
Having studied from an early age with William Fong at the Purcell School he won a scholarship to study for four years with Leon Fleischer,Ignat Solzhenitsyn and Robert McDonald at The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
Already winner of the Liszt /Bartok in Budapest he returned to England to complete his studies with Dmitri Alexeev and Ian Jones at the Royal College of Music winning the Benjamin Britten Piano fellowship with help from the Philip Loubser Foundation.
Now having completed his studies and winner of the Liszt competition in Utrecht he is taking the world by storm as was obvious from the reaction of the audience today.
The new Muziekgebouw in the centre of Eindhoven ,an industrial centre the home of Philips , so cruelly destroyed in the second world war.
A symphony and recital hall in a new commercial complex opposite the cathedral in the very centre of this very active city.
A city where ,like many of the cities in the” padana” in central Italy ,the predominant means of transport is the bicycle.
It gives a calm and peace to what replaces the frenzy in the centre of many cities.
A city where crime is almost unknown is a city to cherish and hold up as a shining example indeed.
An interesting choice of pieces from the vast output of Franz Liszt was followed by the two transcriptions of Russian Music where indeed Mikhail Pletnev and Guido Agosti had exceeded the shining examples set by Liszt and Thalberg
“Harmonies du soir” was given all the sumptuous sounds that Liszt imbues in this neglected master piece.
A very brilliant Steinway D was easily persuaded to reveal all the sensual sounds and passion in the hands of this young virtuoso.
A pity not to have combined it with Chasse Neige, its partner from the 12 Transcendental Studies.
It was however the perfect foil for two of Liszt`s later visionary pieces Nuages Gris and the Bagatelle sans tonalite.
Written when Liszt had long forsaken the life of the greatest living virtuoso for a vision of music that he saw on the horizon.
Some subtle sounds beautifully realised in Nuages Gris but with a forward projection that made the disappearance at its end even more startling.
The Bagatelle where Liszt tries to combine the new with a nostalgic look back over his shoulder was played with such an easy and scintillating jeux perle.
It lead quite naturally to Liszt the supreme showman with his 10th Hungarian Rhapsody. The treacherous glissandi played with an ease and charm that brought a smile to the by now completely absorbed public.
The majestic opening played with all the grandiloquence for whom it was written but gave way to a subtle charm and seductive colours before the extraordinary feats of transcendental pianism brought this showpiece to a remarkable end.
And now the fireworks could really begin.
I well remember Gyorgy Sandor telling me that he could not understand why one of the greatest of pianists like Mikhail Pletnev should want to turn his hand to conducting.
It is easy to understand Sandor’s perplexity from his amazing transcriptions that Pletnev has made of two of Tchaikowskys best loved scores:The Sleeping Beauty and tonights Nutcracker.
Just two hands are made to seem many more as the sumptuous sounds erupt from this box of strings in no way diminishing the beauty of the great original orchestral versions. On the contrary like Thalberg before him he is a true magician or should I say as Sylvan is want to correct me ,an illusionist,and understood how to unlock the sounds giving the illusion indeed of many more hands than the two our young virtuoso today possesses!
The final Andante Maestoso in which the melodic line miraculously appears whilst notes are swirling all around.
Very similar to the techniques used by Liszt in his Norma Fantasy or Thalberg in his extraordinary Moise Fantasie.
(Both can be heard by that other extraordinary British virtuoso and scholar Mark Viner in the Keyboard Trusts Annual Prizewinners concert at the Wigmore Hall on the 2nd of March. Alexander Ullman was the winner two years ago and was much helped by the KCT and YCAT…….it is no coincidence that both Mark and Alexander were students from an early age at the Purcell School)
Not only great virtuosity is required but it takes above all a great sense of balance, that only true musicians have, to be able to create sumptuous but never hard or metallic sounds
Musicianship and virtuosity Alexander Ullman has in abundance that was clear from the relish and sheer enjoyment he was having and was more than happy to share with just that right amount of showmanship that completely won over his sold out Sunday afternoon public.
The imperious rhythm of the march with which the seven episodes of the Nutcracker Suite opens immediately created the atmosphere for the magic that was to follow.
A Sugar Plum Fairy of such charm and delicacy was a complete contrast to the scintillating Tarantella that followed.
The beautiful intermezzo unfolded with a wondrous sense of colour conjured up by a subtle use of the sustaining pedal allied to an acute sense of touch that allowed the melodic line to shine through this beautiful cloud of sound.
The rhythmic energy of the Trepak was a great contrast to the amazing leaps of the Chinese dance.
The final Andante Maestoso was as breathtakingly passionate as only Tchaikowsky can be.
The famous transcription that Agosti made in 1928 of the Firebird by Stravinsky closed this short but very intense recital .
A notoriously difficult transcription much more so than the transcription of Petroushka that the composer made for his friend Artur Rubinstein.
It is hard to think of Agosti the young virtuoso .
We all use to flock to his studio in Siena where in his latter years it would be the only place that we could marvel and learn from the complete mastery of this very reserved maestro of maestros.
The school of Liszt passed on via Busoni and hence this transcription with so many magical colours emanating as if by magic from a single instrument.
Right from the bursting energy of the Danse Infernale it was clear that Alexander Ullman had all the requisites to bring this score startlingly to life.
Like Agosti a true magician with a transcendental control of sound never harsh but always with the precise timbre required.
Beautiful seductive sounds in the Berceuse lead to the magical reappearance of the theme in the Finale.
The calm and build up to the final was most impressively spread with such knowing care across the entire keyboard. A standing ovation and a bouquet of tulips were his just reward .
“En reve” by Liszt the beautiful little nocturne that my old teacher Gordon Green,disciple of Egon Petri( another student of Busoni) loved so much,was the ideal thank you to an audience that had been spellbound by this young winner of the Utrecht Competition.
The public surrounding him in the foyer as he signed copies of his latest CD from the competition so ably anchored by Rob Hilberink who has brought this important competition to the attention of a waiting world.
Ever an English gentleman Alex very gallantly gave his bouquet to Linn Rothstein who had come especially to bring him greetings from her best friend Janina Fialkowska who had been on the jury of the competition together with Leslie Howard and many other illustrious colleagues.
Joseph Rothstein, horse trainer son of Jack Rothstein ,the renowned violinist in London for so many years,had left his horse breeding stables nearby to join us in applauding this young English gentleman.
Reminded of an old Tuscan proverb whilst he was playing being very much in line with the Liszt – Paganini tradition: “L`Inglese Italianizzato e`il Diavolo Incarnato”……..