> Leo Ornstein - Piano Sonatas Nos. 4 & 7 [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Leo ORNSTEIN (1892/3 – 2002)
A Morning in the Woods (1971)
Danse Sauvage (Wild Men’s Dance) Op 13 No 2 (1913)
Piano Sonata No 4 (1924)
Impressions of the Thames (Impressions de la Tamise) Op 13 No1 (1914)
Tarantelle (1960)
Piano Sonata No 7 (1988)
A Long Remembered Sorrow (1964)
Suicide in an Airplane (1913)
Janice Weber, piano
Recorded Grace Church-on-the-Hill, Toronto, June 2001


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Ukraine born in 1892 or 1893 Ornstein studied piano in Kiev with Vladimir Puchalsky, Horowitz’s teacher, on the explicit recommendation of Josef Hofmann. At the age of twelve he was sent to St Petersburg to study further (including composition lessons with Glazunov) before escaping the 1906 pogroms and a new life in America. He gave his official concert debut in 1911, made a select number of now exceptionally rare acoustic 78s – much prized by piano collectors, never reissued so far as I know – but gave up a public career as a soloist very early, in 1922. His compositional aesthetic was unyielding with a pounding astringent modernity that saw him lauded as a leading member of the avant-garde. Grainger, no less, bracketed him with Debussy, Ravel, Strauss, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. There is certainly something in Ornstein’s powerfully propulsive, often unforgiving muse, with its powerful piano clusters, that foreshadows aspects of Futurism – hard not to think not of the Italian Futurists here but Mossolov – but there is a remarkable admixture, too, of other elements that co-exist with the abrasion – stasis, romanticism, impressionism, laconic distance.

Appointed head of the Philadelphia Music Academy in 1925 he subsequently set up, with his supportive wife, his own school of music and saw out his working life, before his extended and bountiful retirement, as a pedagogue. The Ornstein Problem relates not only to the kind of music he wrote but also to its accurate dating and provenance. Manuscripts were often left undated, he frequently had to be cajoled into writing his music down at all – it had been simmering in his mind for a long time – and his stylistic plurality meant that it has remained difficult, retrospectively, to assign a particular piece to a particular time. He frequently worked on a number of works simultaneously. It’s a distinctive feature of "Ornstein Studies" that definitive dating of works turns out, on closer inspection, to be provisional dating – or even hypothetical or reconstructive dating. To this end I have followed the dates of composition provided by Ornstein’s son, Severo, in his excellent notes but should note that a rival Ornstein disc - on Hyperion CDA 67320 and played by Marc-André Hamelin – affixes opus numbers to the compositions whereas the Naxos does not and that when shared pieces are played Hyperion is a little more circumspect about definitive dating than is Naxos.

Naxos’s disc in any case ranges widely to catch the prodigious essence of Ornstein. A Morning in the Woods, which begins, dates from 1971 and is deceptively pliant, impressionist and tonal. The Danse Sauvage which follows delves back nearly sixty years to 1913; vicious, barely tonal, with a ferocious primordial drive it takes a waltz as its musical premise and subjects it to an assault of dramatic abandon. This is in turn followed by the Fourth Piano Sonata of 1924, a work of more immediate appeal written after a period of retrenchment following the earlier savageries of his early twenties. The first movement is freely romantic and gestural late nineteenth century whilst the Semplice second movement hints at the dualities of Ravel and popular song. The Lento is impressionistically unsettled but the finale a winning and powerful affair, employing intriguing rhythms and strong on technical demands, not least for the warring left hand. The agile and insistent melodies exist in profusion and if the work as a whole never quite measures up to its profile – it is inconsistent or at least, perhaps deliberately disharmonious – it’s still a welcome retrieval.

Impressions of the Thames – otherwise known by the French title, for some reason (maybe musical ethos) of Impressions de la Tamise – opens with ominous bell chimes before a series of distinctly unpastoral attacks, dissonant but brooding, afflict the score; gradually moments as reflective as water seep through, suffusing the piece with an elusive depth as evocative as an Alvin Langdon Coburn collotype. The Tarantelle of 1960 is saturated with Ornstein’s gift for gorgeous melody undeflated by irony, whilst A Long Remembered Sorrow from four years later moves from beautiful lyricism to questing and unsettled recall. The Seventh Piano Sonata dates from 1988, the most recent work recorded here – Hamelin gives us the Eighth on his rival disc - and brings us back to the oppositional, paragraphal nature of Ornstein’s art; a first movement has a motoric, barbaric section immediately leading on and relaxing inexorably into delicious lyricism, propelled onward by rhythmic drive. The slow central movement – this is a sonata on classical three movement lines, Molto con moto, Andante, Allegro – is unsettled, with repeated ominous bass notes increasingly tapering out – inconclusive, puzzled, not getting anywhere. The finale sweeps onwards but still with jagged unresolved hesitancy – toward a conclusion admirably brittle and with violent, ambiguous conclusiveness. And not inappropriately then, the recital concludes with another locus classicus of modernist ambiguity, Ornstein’s Suicide in an Airplane. As the engine drone recedes into the distance – is the aviator a suicide or not? – and Ornstein’s quasi-representational work concludes we return to the shock of his modernist youth.

On the three occasions where their recitals overlap – Suicide in an Airplane, Impressions of the Thames and Danse Sauvage – both Weber and Hamelin evoke equally plausible responses. She is generally brisker, more abrupt though receives a somewhat less sympathetic acoustic. Both are superb guides and the Sonatas don’t overlap – Ornstein admirers obviously will need both. And not just Ornstein admirers either – this is music on the cusp and whilst not always likeable it is always compelling.

Jonathan Woolf

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