Leo ORNSTEIN (1893-2001)

Compete Works for Cello and Piano:-
Six preludes for cello and piano (1929-300 [23:07]
Composition 1 for cello and piano [7:48]
Sonata No.1 for cello and piano Op.52 (1915) [25:43]
Two Pieces for cello and piano Op.33 Nos 1 and 2 [1:45 + 0:54]
Sonata No.2 for cello and piano (c.1920) [15:23]
Joshua Gordon (cello)
Randall Hodgkinson (piano)
rec. December 2005, Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80655-2 [74:50]
Americans like their Wild Men and Bad Boys. They like, in theory, Ornstein and Antheil though it’s an affection usually more honoured in the breach. Still, some excellent recordings have been made of late devoted to the works of both men, and this one is no exception. Antheil is by far the more recorded and in passing let me give a plug to the amazing ‘Antheil plays Antheil’ on OM1003-04; a two CD set of incredible rarities and eccentricities, home recorded and otherwise.
As for Ornstein some of his piano works have been very well presented by Janice Weber – she also joins the Lydian Quartet in chamber works on New World NW80509 - and by Marc-André Hamelin, though these are getting on for eight years old now, amazingly. This is hardly a complete survey but they are amongst the most easy to find examples of Ornstein’s music. And now New World popularises its man again with this latest release of the complete works for cello and piano.
The futurist and lone furrow-plougher is a fascinating case study, musically speaking. The 1929-30 Preludes – there are six – are highly expressive examples of his art, and range from moody introversion to pretty much overt hints of Stravinsky and Prokofiev (try the third, a Presto). He mines a rich seam of sombre recitation as well – the fourth and fifth don’t give up their secrets easily – but dallies in quasi-folkloric pathways in the final Prelude. The undated Composition 1 for cello and piano wears a necessarily utilitarian title but is shrouded in Kol Nidrei and Russian mourning apparel.
Whereas the First Sonata we can date precisely to 1915. It’s in four movements. It’s quite ‘traditional’ sounding for him, with intense lyricism and powerful chromaticism at work through its bloodstream, even to the extent of evoking Rachmaninov. There’s a cantorial undertow to the slow movement, tolling and yearning – he was deep down a nostalgic as well as a futurist and fusing the two was his art’s work. The scherzo fizzes in its outer sections enclosing a repetitive and self-absorbed B theme, whilst the finale reverts to lyricism before ending speculatively and quietly. This is a fine sonata, and will prove unexpectedly so to those who only know the more extrovert examples of his work.
The Two Pieces for cello and piano are brief indeed, and were written before 1914 and could well be song transcriptions. But the disc ends with the second sonata, composed around 1920. It’s possible that two other movements exist, or existed, possibly in torso, and that the planned three movement sonata never materialised because of the pressure of work. The surviving movement was once described as a ‘Rhapsody’ but Ornstein preferred the nomenclature sonata so sonata it is. It was first performed, privately, by Hans Kindler. Again we find the lyric-Hebraic in the ascendant. The piano’s richly chorded playing offers ripe, revealing and occasionally Rachmaninovian support, whilst the cello spins a succulent lyric line. The long, intense andante section turns quickly into a Chassidic dance scherzo, then back to the elastic lyricism and some ‘earnest Hebraic’ writing, if I can phrase it thus.
Are people put off by Ornstein’s reputation, such as it is? There are abrasive works – some of the piano works don’t exactly cry out to be loved – but his cello works offer far more explicitly romantic pleasures. If you cleave to the melancholy-lyric models alluded to above don’t overlook these appealing works. Not least because they’re beautifully played by Joshua Gordon and Randall Hodgkinson and a great deal of preparatory and editorial work has clearly gone into the making of it. Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts proves an excellent recording location. Once again New World hits all the right notes with this release.
Jonathan Woolf

New World hits all the right notes with this release ... see Full Review