> Leo Ornstein - Suicide in an Airplane [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Leo ORNSTEIN (1892/3-2002)
Suicide in an Airplane (1913)
A la Chinoise Op 39 (c 1911-16)
Danse Sauvage (Wild Men’s Dance) Op 13 No 2 (1913)
Poems of 1917 Op 41 (1917)
Arabesques Op 42 (c1917-20)
Impressions de la Tamise (Impressions of the Thames) Op 13 No 1 (1913-14)
Piano Sonata No 8 (1990)
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Recorded Henry Wood Hall, London August 2001
HYPERION CDA 67320 [77.20]


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Hamelin’s Ornstein recital joins Janice Weber’s Naxos disc, both recorded before the composer’s death but only issued after it, in presenting a reasonable corpus of work the better to assess and understand the former enfant terrible. Ornstein was born in the Ukraine in 1892 or 1893 – the confusion came about when age limits for entrance to the St Petersburg Conservatoire had to be tweaked, as Ornstein was younger than the permitted minimum age. He went there on the recommendation of none other than Josef Hoffman, having studied with Horowitz’s teacher, and studied composition with Glazunov before escaping to America in 1906. He played recitals and composed in tandem, making a precious few acoustic discs along the way – a suitable case for reissue I’d have thought – but gave up the life of barnstorming virtuoso in the early to mid twenties to concentrate on his music school, pedagogy and composition.

As I wrote in my review of Weber’s disc intimations of Russian Futurism do sometimes manifest themselves and Ornstein’s early muse was certainly an unforgiving, propulsive, often relentless and fractious one. But it should be noted that reflection, impressionism and romanticism were always admixtures – sometimes, it’s true fairly distant ones – of his eclectic but frequently compelling compositional style. The shared pieces on these discs - Suicide in an Airplane, Danse Sauvage and Impressions of the Thames (Impressions de la Tamise) - also show a distinct difference of approach on the part of the two excellent pianists and one not, I think, motivated merely by virtue of the fact that Hamelin receives the accustomed greater weight of supportive acoustic from Hyperion. In Suicide in an Airplane for example Hamelin is rather slower than Weber and conjures a wider range of tone colours – his central climactic passage is also more viscerally thunderous than hers. The gains in Hamelin’s performance are those of jagged disjunction, in Weber’s of rather more structural cohesion.

Hamelin plays A la Chinoise in which impressionism of San Francisco’s Chinatown is conveyed by means of kaleidoscopic scraps of melody, scintillating right hand runs ending in hammered treble followed without pause by delicate and deliberate filigree. His abrupt conjunctive writing was seldom so marked as here. The Poems of 1917 are aphoristic affairs dedicated to another piano colossus, Leopold Godowsky. They generally conform to ABA design and cover a wide range of moods, predominately but not exclusively dark and violent. No 4 The Wrath of the Despoiled is especially daemonic and vicious and No 8 The Battle convincingly conveys the waves of succeeding and advancing infantrymen in a dramatic and devastating way. The concluding Poem, No 10, Dance of the Dead, is a deeply biting affair with fragments of song flecking the minute long setting. The Op 42 Arabesques – as I wrote in my review of Weber’s disc Hyperion are attentive to details such as opus numbers and are less conclusive when it comes to dating – divulge impressionistic sounding titles (Shadowed Waters, A Melancholy Landscape and Pompeian Fresco amongst them) but present musically Ornstein’s own patented brand of pummelling ambiguity. The Isle of Elephantine is unsettled and driven on by a treble ostinato, A Melancholy Landscape is, unusually for Ornstein, almost explicitly Scriabinesque, and the Pompeian Fresco is a superb study in aphoristic simplicity, fifty seconds of wandering tonality impossible to relate to its title without the most arcane of games-playing. The Railing and Raging Wind, which concludes the set, returns to Ornstein’s rhythmic drive, unstoppable momentum and crusading assaults.

Hamelin’s Impressions of the Thames are much slower than Janice Weber’s. He tends to make less of the tolling bells episode than does she but at his broader tempo there is something more brooding and perhaps more menacing too in his impressionistic depth; and the attacks that bisect the score are more vertiginous under Hamelin’s fingers than Weber’s, though the gains in her performance are ones of the powerfully occluded sense of mystery that Ornstein evokes in his scoring. Whereas Weber gave us the Fourth and Seventh Sonatas Hamelin gives us the Eighth of 1990 written when the composer was ninety-seven or ninety-eight. If you thought that age might have tempered his convulsive sense of disruptive syntax, his abrasive and brusque musical language or his picaresque superscriptions (Life’s Turmoil and a Few Bits of Satire is the indication for the first movement, whilst the Berceuse section of the second is entitled A half-Mutilated Cradle) well, think again. Vicious and episodic the first movement suddenly chances upon a moment of almost transformative Rachmaninov-like beauty at 3.17 before erupting once more into a motoric burlesque section. It revisits the Elysian Rachmaninov haven once more before returning to the barbarities of the opening section. The first part of the multi-part second movement – lasting in total no more than six minutes - brings a deliberate and charming simplicity, moments of delicacy and child-like lyricism followed by Debussyian episodes. Hamelin is excellent at conveying the clarity and evenness – as well as the understated humour – of the First Carousel Ride. The final movement plunges us straight back to the violence and disjunction of the first. Ornstein’s rather crooked wit surfaces here as does the Rachmaninov-like reminiscences before strongly emphatic bass notes and chugging violence propel a vanquishing and unstoppable conclusion.

Ornstein is not a hermetically sealed composer. He responded to the musical motors of his time and in his own way anticipated some of the trends that followed. You won’t necessarily respond to his more unyielding abrasions, or to the dead-end Futurist experiments; perhaps in his admixture of pounding violence, impressionism, stasis and aphoristic distance he may seem forbiddingly disparate. But as Hamelin - and Weber – show there’s a huge amount in his music to excite, entrance and – imaginatively, productively – bewilder.

Jonathan Woolf

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