My single experience of Alexander Ullman’s playing prior to this recording was a concert rendition of Ravel’s G-major Concerto in which he was loud, aggressive and dominating. Good to report that this challenging programme of Liszt finds him altogether more winning; indeed, very impressive. He certainly has the technique and barnstorming bravura needed when the moment allows in both Concertos, although his shapely expression and delicacy are even finer attributes. His success in the works with orchestra has much to do with Andrew Litton and the BBC Symphony (led by Stephen Bryant) – some fine solo contributions – and Litton grabs the opening of the First Concerto with arresting imperious rhetoric and steers a romantic, thriving and energetic course that sits well with the music and with Ullman. Concerto No.2 is no-less rewarding and is also concert-hall spontaneous and vividly detailed, its dreamy opening beautifully distilled by woodwinds and sensitively responded to by Ullman and the moving into stormier waters is cannily negotiated. Susan Monks deserves her credit for the cello solos (so do other principals) in what is the ‘slow movement’ – gorgeously phrased and lovingly expressed – before the music marches on in triumph (although Pennario has the edge when it comes to glissandos).
Like the Concertos the Sonata plays continuously, here for half-an-hour, which tends to be the average timing for this great work (there are of course performances that are a few minutes either side of the thirty). Ullman’s account is afforded six cue points, which matches Alfred Brendel’s analysis of the piece (others see it as composed in three or four sections) and it’s Brendel’s second recording (his first for Philips) that has long been my yardstick. That remains the case, although Ullman is to be preferred to Grosvenor’s disappointing recent account for Decca. Ullman can be too showy in the fast music (the Fugue, for example) – brilliant playing as such – although he certainly captures the majesty of the music and also its interior qualities, with much that is poetic and thrilling, coherent, too, although he can be heavy-handed at times (reminding of that Ravel), especially in the left, yet overall it’s a magnetic listen, with a real sense of journeying and arriving.
The Sonata was captured on September 26, 2020, at Henry Wood Hall, London, and the Concertos a year later at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios. Producer Andrew Keener, engineer Dave Rowell and editor Matthew Swan play a big part in ensuring Ullman has the best-possible calling card – on Rubicon RCD1057.