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Leo ORNSTEIN (1893-2002)
Piano Music - Volume 2
Complete Waltzes, s400-16 (1958-c.1980) [60:08]
Suite Russe, s58 (1914) [11:20]
A Morning in the Woods, s106 (1971) [7:24]
Arsentiy Kharitonov (piano)
rec. December 2012, Margot and Bill Winspear Performance Hall, Murchison Performing Arts Centre, University of North Texas
TOCCATA TOCC 0167 [78:54]

Volume two of Toccata’s Ornstein piano music series takes us into largely uncharted territory (see review of Volume 1). Only A Morning in the Woods has been recorded before. The major piece is the set of Waltzes, composed over more than two decades between 1958 and c.1980. Of the seventeen that make up the set, no fewer than seven - numbers 9-15 - were composed within the period of a year; June 1979 to May 1980. Malcolm MacDonald’s excellent notes tell us that they were probably intended as separate pieces, not as a cycle as such, and that they’re heard in this disc in the order devised by Ornstein’s son Severo, which is how they appear in the published edition. A number are undated and the earlier ones are bereft of tempo-markings or dynamics.
The music ranges through much of Ornstein’s compositional affiliations. Some of the waltzes show distinct echoes of Scriabin, whilst others - such as No.2 - hint at the parodic; at least it does to me, in part, before it becomes increasingly turbulent and passionate. There’s high drama in No.3 and by contrast, lissom lyricism in No.4 - a melancholy chanson triste. Virtuosity is certainly an integral part of several of the Waltzes, No.5 especially. No.6 is quietly Brahmsian - the famously long-lived Ornstein only died in 2002 but he was born when Brahms was still alive. The more harmonically questing Ornstein is to be heard in No.7, where the ghostly patina of Chopin is audible. Dissonance is seldom far away in these waltzes but one shouldn’t overlook the sheer charm of No.9 or the lyrically fulsome No.10, or the skittish pastiche of Eleven. No.13 is more watchfully languorous, 14 more overtly avuncular, whilst the most recent, No.15, has a rolling player-piano vehemence. One of the most beautiful is No.16, though 17 offers a conflation of Ornsteinian compositional qualities; Scriabinesque dissonance, rippling elegance, and harmonic searching.
A much different work is the early 1914 Suite Russe. The charming seven movements that make up the suite have a lightly burnished, almost Rachmaninovian touch in places, though they do also incline to the salon-light too. Whether cradle-song or flecked by tristesse, a perfect example is the last of the seven, a Chanson pathétique, where the theme is gently chiselled in the left hand whilst the right warmly decorates. A Morning in the Woods is certainly a product of Debussian immersion, though not composed until 1971. There’s a big contrast in approach between Arsentiy Kharitonov’s performance and that of Janice Weber on Naxos [8.559104]. The Russian player plays with much more rubato and space, whereas Weber, possibly to minimise the impressionist affiliations, is fresher and much faster. On her disc we find sonatas 4 and 7; and note that Kharitonov has already recorded Sonata No.4 for Toccata in the first volume of this series [TOCC0141].
The waltzes make a most digestible sequence, full of contrast and vitality, augmented by the lighter fare of the Suite russe. Once again Kharitonov is an exemplary guide - witty, warm and splendidly recorded.
Jonathan Woolf