Ullmann: Der Kaiser von Atlantis

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Ullmann
LABELS: Matous
WORKS: Der Kaiser von Atlantis
PERFORMER: Stephen Swanson, Rupert Bergmann, Johannes Strasser, Stefani Kahl; Ensemble Kreativ/Alexander DrcŠar
CATALOGUE NO: MK 0022-2 (distr. Red Hedgehog)
Although it may seem inconceivable to appreciate Viktor Ullmann’s Kaiser von Atlantis without paying due regard to the extraordinary circumstances of the Terezín concentration camp where it was composed, the opera’s central themes, which attack fascism and the low value it places on human life, have a relevance that is just as chilling today as 50 years ago. Equally compelling is Ullmann’s score, its uneasy juxtapositions of brutality, irony, anguish and ultimately resigned acceptance of death making an unforgettable impression both on stage and on disc.

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It’s unfortunate that this new recording from the Austrian-based theatre group Arbos faces such formidable competition from the 1994 Decca release boasting a star-studded cast and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Lothar Zagrosek. The quality of singing is hardly comparable and the characterisation less defined. But Arbos perform the opera in its original version with chamber orchestral accompaniment, and setting aside significant differences in the text and sequence of events in the fourth scene, the main advantage of the Arbos performance lies in the more transparent instrumental texture which, with the help of drier acoustics, actually serves to heighten the dramatic impact. But in the last resort, the Decca recording has the edge, particularly as it includes Ullmann’s Hölderlin Lieder as a generous filler. Erik Levi