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Leo ORNSTEIN (1893-2002)
Piano Quintet, Op.92 [SO 610] (1927) [40:04]
String Quartet No.2, Op.99 [SO 608] (c.1929) [33:42]
Pacifica Quartet; Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
rec. April 2014, Henry Wood Hall, London
HYPERION CDA68084 [72:48]

Having abandoned the ultra-modernism of his youth, Leo Ornstein similarly shed those conspicuous dissonances that had been so much a part of his work in the teens of the twentieth century. By the time he came to compose the two pieces heard here he was writing with a kind of ferocious lyricism that is in some ways no less striking than his earlier barbarity.

The Piano Quintet was written in 1927 and premiered at a concert in which works by Bartók – who was also present - were performed. Powerfully non-contrapuntal, it works by juxtaposing piano-led rippling harmonies against moments, oases really, of highly intense lyricism. The result is schematic, perhaps, but effective if you are sympathetic to the idiom in which drama is the premium component. For all the lyrical impulse there is an unremitting sense of unease, perfectly explored in the central movement of the three, in which the charged intensity of the writing is again dominated by the piano – Ornstein’s own instrument. The music here takes on an increasing quotient of Eastern European influence, ending in a communing emotionalism. Changes of tempo and mood are marked features of the finale, though the principal feeling is one of vivid urgency, as strands of the opening movement are revisited and a stern march theme develops. Leading the charge is Marc-André Hamelin, whose solo disc devoted to the composer (Hyperion CDA67320) established him as an insightful interpreter of the ‘barbaro’ aspects of the oeuvre. He proves equally adept at the Rachmaninovian elements in the Quintet, and together with the Pacifica Quartet drives with technical finesse through this very personal music. It sounds altogether bigger, and more imposing than in the performance by Janice Weber and the Lydian Quartet (New World NW80509-2).

In the String Quartet No.2, composed a couple of years later, we find Ornstein concentrating once again not on counterpoint but on colour. The music’s texture, rhythms, frequent ostinati and recurrent lyric episodes, mark it as recognisably of the same period, and sharing the musical impulses, as the Quintet. Again this is a three-movement work, a form that allows Ornstein a sure frame for a Moderato-Lento-Presto outline, within which there are the same kind of ultra-lyrical episodes that were present in the earlier work. The most obvious example comes in the finale where the con fuoco impulse of the music is arrested by a truly fragrant episode, which soon briskly resumes the sense of determinism towards the energetic close.

Splendidly annotated and engineered, these large-scale chamber works suggest a retrenchment in his development, and those more familiar with the hi-jinks of the piano pieces will welcome the opportunity to explore this brace of works.

Jonathan Woolf



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