Leo ORNSTEIN (1893-2002)
Violin Sonata No. 1 Op.26 [18:51]
Violin Sonata No. 2 Op.31 [16:51]
Hebraic Fantasy for violin and piano [5:24]
Violin Sonata Op. Posth. [12:22]
Three pieces for flute and piano [18:02]
Francesco Parrino (violin), Stefano Parrino (flute), Maud Renier (piano)
rec. Cavalli Musica, Castrezzato (BS), Italy, 2-4 January 2016

Leo Ornstein was a composer of Ukrainian Jewish heritage who died in relative obscurity as recently as 2002 at the astonishing age of 108 or (more probably) 109. Eighty years before, however, he was a controversial – if not notorious – celebrity.

As a child Ornstein was initially taught the piano and made such rapid progress that at the age of twelve, on the recommendation of Josef Hofmann, he was admitted to the St Petersburg Conservatoire. (Since his son was below the official age of admission, Ornstein’s father added a couple of years to the boy’s age and this was probably where the subsequent confusion arose as to his actual birth date.) In his early teens he was uprooted from his studies, when his family emigrated to New York (leaving all his birth documentation behind) to escape the anti-Semitic pogroms of Tsarist Russia. However, within twelve years or so of his arrival there, he had become a well-known and highly-praised concert pianist, able to achieve packed concert halls – eventually with audiences in the thousands. Part of the reputation he developed rested on his diverse programmes, with music as wide ranging as Schoenberg and Stravinsky alongside Ravel, Debussy and American classics, such as MacDowell. He was, however, also to achieve fame before 1920 as an iconic (and iconoclastic) composer, celebrated as a controversial emblem of musical “futurism”, and sought-after as a teacher by the likes of Henry Cowell. His notoriety resulted from the inclusion in his programmes of some of his own works, which, using such techniques as tone clusters and metrical irregularities, caused some critics to question his sanity. This led to him being lampooned by other composers, such as Joseph Holbrooke (in his “Four Futurist Dances, Op. 66) – no doubt envious of his fame. Pianistically, his reputation grew to the extent that, on finally abandoning the concert stage in the early 1930s - burned out and seeking financial support - he would be acceptable as one of the four pianists to provide testimonials for the Ampico reproducing piano – alongside artists no less celebrated than Hofmann, Godowsky and Rachmaninov.

Ornstein subsequently embraced a teaching career, and he and his wife founded their own school of music in Philadelphia, continuing to teach until their retirement and effective disappearance in the early 1950s - although Ornstein continued to compose. Much later in life, after the composer and his wife had been tracked down by a musical historian to a Texas trailer park in the mid-1970s, he wrote his Seventh Piano Sonata. With this work of 1988 he became, by at least a couple of years, the oldest published composer ever to produce a substantial new work – a feat only recently exceeded by the late Elliott Carter. He subsequently wrote an eighth piano sonata, (superbly recorded in 2002, together with several other pieces, by Marc Andre Hamelin on Hyperion CDA67320).

My own acquaintance with Ornstein started with an old CRI LP of his epic Piano Quintet, Op. 92 of 1927 – a complex and dissonant but tonal work that seems to reference both Rebecca Clarke’s Piano Trio and Ernest Bloch’s First Piano Quintet (both dating from 1923). Amongst others, this work illustrates two idiosyncratic features of Ornstein’s composing career. The first is that Ornstein’s compositions relied on his innate talent alone. Evidently his music was not much grounded in study or learning and any structure in his music is probably more apparent than real. The second, related, is that he just wrote exactly as he felt at the time, so his career cannot be divided into compositional phases. Amazingly, even at the height of his “futurist” notoriety, he also wrote several lyrical, tonal works, such as the First Sonata for Cello and Piano which (about 75 years later) caused one critic to remark that it "rivals Rachmaninov’s [cello sonata] in gorgeous tunes“. (Obviously, here is a work that is long overdue for re-discovery.) The works on the present CD span a period of only about 15 years and fairly reflect Ornstein’s diverse styles.

We begin with the entertaining Violin Sonata No 1 of 1914/15 (Op. 26). This work is in four movements that the booklet notes describe as being “in late romantic style…..[from] a composer who looks back to Grieg and Franck”. The work is largely tonal and I can see what is meant here – particularly in the bouncy third movement Scherzo. The description is, however, a bit misleading, bearing in mind the other movements, where the composer’s use of thematic fragments and his inability (or refusal) to sustain long structures gives the music an exploratory feel – not unlike Schoenberg’s First String quartet. The strange Moderato - Andante last movement almost provides a bridge between tonality and atonality, ending away from the home key.

With the Violin Sonata No 2 (Op. 31) from only slightly later in 1915 – and again in four movements - we are (as the booklet puts it) “in another world” and not far removed from the “expressionist angst” of works such as Schoenberg’s String Quartet No 2, and we get “recurring cells” rather than thematic material. I have never developed a taste for the mature utterances of the New Viennese School and I’m afraid this sonata sounds too similar to them to allow me to derive any great enjoyment from it, but, if you like such music, this work may well be for you. That said, whilst the parallels between Schoenberg and Ornstein are interesting, it is important to realise a fundamental difference. The former developed a set of rules for his compositions and subsequently composed rigidly according to them, whereas the latter just composed in the moment, “hounded by music that would circle in his head until he could rid himself of it by writing it down”.

The short Hebraic Fantasy, which contains much reference to the Jewish culture, from which Ornstein came, takes us back into comfortably tonal territory. This predominantly lyrical work was written in 1929 for the celebration of the 50th birthday of Einstein (who apparently turned the pages at its first performance at his party) – although the booklet is confused as to which Einstein, since it refers to the “great scientist” (Albert) but names the musicologist (Alfred). Since they were both about 50 years old at the time, their dates do not help, but further research indicates that the work was actually dedicated to Albert.

Little information is provided about the short Third Violin Sonata (Op. Posth.), a single movement tonal Andante, whose composition date remains unclear. It is described as “characterised by a harsh, almost alienated lyricism, and by many references to the Jewish culture that become more and more evident in the Hebraic Fantasy”, suggesting that the work pre-dates the Fantasy. This description sounds about right to me and the work certainly inhabits a world that is quite distinct from that of the second sonata.

Finally we are offered the Three Pieces for Flute and Piano. These date from “the 50s”, 1959 and 1979 respectively and were gathered together by the composer’s son, Severo. There is no suggestion that the composer intended them to be grouped in this way, although they co-exist very harmoniously, recalling the style of one or two of Debussy’s Six Epigraphes Antiques. I found the second piece particularly delightful.

In reviewing offerings from Brilliant Classics on previous occasions, I have usually had slight reservations about the techniques of some of the musicians involved, but no such caveats apply here. I have not come across any of these musicians before, but they give us splendid performances of these disparate works. Typically, Ornstein never provided any indications of dynamics (leaving these to the performers) and my only slight criticism of these performances is that they appear to assume that the lack of dynamic markings means that dynamics need not be varied much. Recordings are clear, occasionally luminous (in the flute pieces) and generally unimpeachable. There are one or two proof-reading errors in the booklet but, otherwise, the notes are pretty good.

I am pleased to have heard this disc and it makes a fine case for further exploration of Ornstein’s music. In particular it made me seek out the very listenable but dauntingly difficult Piano Concerto of 1921-3, a poorly recorded public performance of which can be heard on YouTube. This sounds like another work ripe for rediscovery - perhaps Marc Andre Hamelin will oblige.

Bob Stevenson

Support us financially by purchasing this from