Leo ORNSTEIN (1893–2002)
Piano Music, Volume One
Four Impromptus, S300A (1950s–76) [17:02]
Piano Sonata No. 4, S360 (c. 1918) [22:16]
In the Country, S63 (1924) [7:06]
Cossack Impressions, S55 (c. 1914) [25:16]
Arsentiy Kharitonov (piano)
rec. 20-22 Dec 2011, Margot and Bill Winspear Performance Hall, Murchison Performing Arts Center, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas, USA. DDD
TOCCATA TOCC0141 [71:40]
Long-lived composers are not unheard of though perhaps they are eclipsed by the dazzle of those who died early with promise only partly fulfilled.
Ornstein had a strikingly long life: 109 years. He was seen as one of the bad boys of modernism in early maturity through to the 1920s. In this he paralleled his fellow American, Henry Cowell but Ornstein’s disappearance from the repertoire was deeper still. His smaller-scale music has not been completely neglected in recent years. There is a Naxos disc of one early (No. 4) and one late (No. 7, 1988) piano sonata (review review), a New World CD of the music for cello and piano (review) and a general piano solo collection including the sonata No. 8 (1990) from Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion (review).
The Four Impromptus accommodate a variety of styles: there’s a soulful panorama of bell-chimes encasing a noble Rachmaninovian idea; a lugubrious Medtner-like meditation; an icily dissonant impressionistic portrait; and finally there’s an almost Hispanic collage of quickly changing ambience and rhythms. I have not been able to compare Kharitonov’s account of the Fourth Sonata, which dates from the Great War years, with Janice Weber’s version on Naxos. This is a grand hyper-romantic essay in four movements, full of Rachmaninov DNA and lovely inventive touches. You hear this especially in the cocktail of hesitation and plangency that is the third movement. It keeps threatening to turn into a blues. The euphorically hammered rhythms of the finale serve to emphasise both excitement and Asiatic-Russian exoticism. This reminds us that Ornstein was born in the Ukraine and only immigrated to the USA in 1906.
More Russian vignettes can be heard in the sequence of five little pieces grouped under In the Country – miniature landscapes and mood impressions, some quite dark. We end with a style-consistent but longer cycle this time of 13 pieces under the title Cossack Impressions. These are variegated in mood from the gentle passivity of Maidens at the Mountain, to the sturdy Mazurka and Dance (made for the pianola one would have thought) to a gorgeously smooth Nocturne. The Rachmaninov influence becomes signally apparent in The March while the Méditation references the tentative graces of Chopin. At the Festival derives its recreation from aristocratic Chopin and rhetorical Tchaikovsky. Across s63 and s55 there is an unsurprising commonality of mood – rather like MacDowell’s suites but as voiced through Ornstein’s mediation of impressionism and Russian romance.
Arsentiy Kharitonov seems fully in command of the technical and emotional demands and the sound is nothing short of gorgeously close and warm.
In splendid Toccata style Malcolm Macdonald contributes a substantial and highly readable liner note. It is in English only and runs to nine pages.
While there is a dash of awkward cuss dissonance this slice through a largely unexplored catalogue presents Ornstein as a master of Russian romance both grand and gentle. If you have discovered and enjoyed Bortkiewicz, Rozycki, Bowen, Melartin, Giannini, Feinberg or Madetoja then put this on your shopping list. I am pretty sure you will, with me, be looking out for volume 2.
  Rob Barnett
A dash of awkward cuss dissonance but this disc presents Ornstein as a master of Russian romance both grand and gentle.

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