LEO ORNSTEIN: Piano Quintet; String Quartet No. 2—Marc-Andre Hamelin, p./Pacifica Q.—Hyperion CDA68084, 72:48, ****:
Pianist and avante-garde composer Leo Ornstein (1893-2000) was so (in)famous that at age 25 someone had already written his biography. Of Ornstein, author Frederick H. Martens wrote:
“Leo Ornstein to many represents an evil musical genius wandering without the utmost pale of tonal orthodoxy, in a weird No-Man’s Land haunted with torturous sound, with wails of futuristic despair, with cubist shrieks and post-impressionistic cries and crashes. He is the great anarch, the iconoclast, the destructive who would root out what little remains of the law and the prophets since Scriabin, Stravinsky and Schonberg have trampled them.”
The irony is that the Russian-born boy prodigy, who was forced to journey to America to escape pogroms from anti-Semitic organizations, started out as a virtuoso pianist who played the usual classical repertoire—Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, etc. But he suddenly began hearing and composing music of such dissonance that, “I really doubted my sanity at first. I simply said, what is that? It was so completely removed from any experience that I ever had.” His piano piece, Suicide in an Airplane was strewn with tone clusters (playing several keys at once). Some critics said, his music “is the sum of Schoenberg and Scriabin [sic] squared.” Others said, “he’s one of the most remarkable composers of the day.” Ornstein sold out concerts and became a cause-celebre. But by the early 1920s he abandoned his concert career and began composing tonal, expressive works. He discovered that his true musical self was as a lyricist, albeit not without dramatic and wild interludes that makes his music intriguing to today’s listeners.
The first movement—Allegro Barbaro—of the forty-minute Piano Quintet of 1928 fits this pattern: alternating between frenetic, rhythmically volatile, and lyrical interludes that are tenderly fetching. Undulating piano chords create a driving movement that are relieved by melody in the strings. These alternating moods create drama that’s sustains musical interest in the fifteen minute opening section. The second movement—Andante lamentoso—has an underlying sadness that has an Eastern European flavor. The last movement returns to the diverse emotional states of the beginning, but there’s an untamed intensity that makes a stronger statement and is reminiscent of Bartok’s First Piano Concerto. Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin is one of the great piano virtuosos of our time, but he also plays with great sensitivity, as does the Pacifica Quartet. This is nothing less than a major discovery of American chamber music.
The String Quartet No. 2 (1928-9) in three movements (fast-slow-fast) has the same variants in emotional mood (lyricism vs. driving rhythm), but not quite the extremes as in the Piano Quintet. Themes and motives are interlinked between the instruments, rather than the more common contrapuntal texture that emphasizes contrasting opposites. The emotional center is the doleful slow movement that is rich in melodic invention and motivic development. The final movement is dramatic and heart-felt.
Ornstein opened a music school with his wife in the mid 1930s and retired in 1953. One of his students was jazz great John Coltrane. He disappeared until found by music historian Vivian Perlis. Miraculously, he composed his last work—the Eighth Piano Sonata—at age 97. He died in 2002 at age 108. These superb performances are recorded in Hyperion’s usual superior sound—a marvelous tribute to an iconoclastic American composer.