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Hyperion Records

CDA67320 - Ornstein: Piano Music
Untitled painting (2001) by Monika Giller-Lenz
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Release date: August 2002
Total duration: 76 minutes 56 seconds


'Stimulating and frequently astonishing music, ultimately unlike anyone else's' (BBC Music Magazine)

'A tremendous tribute to a fascinating figure in 20th-century music' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Marc-André Hamelin plays magisterially, as ever. He clearly loves this music' (International Record Review)

'This is an essential release…realized with the dazzling virtuosity and preternatural clarity that we have come to expect from the enterprising Canadian … this exhausting, diverse, and technically astonishing recording is not one that I would gladly be without' (Fanfare, USA)

'Marc-André Hamelin plays Ornstein’s music with commanding savoir-faire' (The Irish Times)

'A provocative collection, brilliantly played and splendidly engineered' (International Piano)

'Marc-André Hamelin is spellbinding in his performance … This CD is an outstanding example of astonishing music' (Hi-Fi Plus)

'It almost goes without saying that Marc-André Hamelin plays the socks off this music, tackling the most knuckle-busting runs and cluster harmonies in Danse Sauvage and its fellow pieces with staggering virtuosity.' (

'Marc-André Hamelin, aussi à l’aise dans les déferlements rythmiques que dans les moments suspendus du temps, nous offer là un disque superbe' (Répertoire, France)

Piano Music
Primal echo  [1'40]
Shadowed waters  [0'40]
Pompeian fresco  [0'50]
Passion  [0'26]
Les basoches  [0'34]

When Leo Ornstein died in February 2002, the musical world lost a fascinating composer, quite possibly the oldest of all time (the year of his birth is uncertain, but he was probably 109 years old). Ornstein had an extraordinary life: he was a child-prodigy pianist in his native Russia, a refugee from anti-Semitism, an avant garde American composer and a virtuoso pianist of international renown in his early twenties. However, at the height of his fame he voluntarily turned his back on the limelight and took sanctuary in increasing obscurity, and having been almost entirely forgotten, he lived long enough to take satisfaction in the re-emergence of an interest in his music—of which this CD is early testimony.

Ornstein's early piano works were unlike anything else in music. He employed the piano as a percussion instrument, pounding out savage rhythms and ferocious cluster-chords with a raw primal energy. He embraced atonality independently of Schoenberg and rhythmic primitivism unaware of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The titles of his pieces—among them Danse sauvage and Suicide in an Airplane—reflected the extremist brutality of the music and rapidly gained him notoriety. By his early twenties he was one of the most highly reputed of contemporary composers.

The music on this CD comes from each end of Ornstein's improbably long creative career. The shorter works were written at its outset, while the large-scale, kaleidoscopic Eighth Piano Sonata, his last composition, was finished in September 1990, when he was in his late nineties.

The ever-inquisitive Marc-André Hamelin gives commanding performances of these supremely demanding works. The result is a stunning disc that reveals one of the twentieth century's most original and quirkily imaginative creative minds.

Other recommended albums
'Grainger: Piano Music' (CDA66884)
Grainger: Piano Music
'Medtner: The Complete Piano Sonatas' (CDA67221/4)
Medtner: The Complete Piano Sonatas
MP3 £23.99FLAC £23.99ALAC £23.99Buy by post £30.00 CDA67221/4  4CDs for the price of 3  

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Leo Ornstein had one of the most extraordinary lives of any musician. He was a child-prodigy pianist in his native Russia, a refugee from anti-Semitism, an avant-garde American composer and virtuoso pianist of international renown in his early twenties who, at the height of his fame, voluntarily turned his back on the limelight and took sanctuary in increasing obscurity. Having been almost entirely forgotten, he lived long enough (he may have been 109 when he died on 24 February 2002, making him almost certainly the oldest composer ever) to take calm satisfaction in the re-emergence of an interest in his music—of which this CD is early testimony.

Ornstein was born in Kremenchug, in the Ukraine, in 1892 or 1893, and in later years celebrated his birthday on 2 December, without being certain that the date was accurate. He had his first music lessons from his father, a synagogue cantor, and then studied in Kiev with the composer-pianist Vladimir Puchalsky (1848–1933), who later taught Vladimir Horowitz. Young Leo made such rapid progress that at the age of twelve, on the recommendation of Josef Hofmann, he was admitted to the St Petersburg Conservatoire to study piano with Anna Essipova and composition with Glazunov. But at twelve Leo was younger than the official limit, and so his father added a couple of years to gain him admission. That was where the confusion about Ornstein’s age began: when the family fled to the United States in 1906 to escape the anti-Semitic pogroms of Tsarist Russia, they of course left the official documentation behind—and so in later life Ornstein couldn’t confirm his real date of birth.

The Ornsteins settled in New York where, at the institution that was to become the Juilliard School of Music, Leo began lessons with Bertha Fiering Tapper, who helped shape his prodigious pianistic talents. He had already been composing for some time—attractive, elegant, tonal pieces of considerable craftsmanship—when he made his concert debut in 1911, and around a year later, apparently unaware of such developments elsewhere, he suddenly began writing music of such fierce radicality that it attracted slighting comments about his sanity; he even worried about it himself.

His style, indeed, was now unlike anything else in music. He employed the piano as a percussion instrument, pounding out savage rhythms and ferocious cluster-chords with a primal energy that appalled the timid. He embraced atonality independently of Schoenberg’s parallel experiments in Europe and rhythmic primitivism unaware of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The titles of his pieces—among them Danse sauvage (subtitled in English ‘Wild Men’s Dance’) and Suicide in an Airplane—reflected the extremist brutality of the music and rapidly gained him notoriety. By his early twenties he was one of the most highly reputed of contemporary composers: Ferruccio Busoni acknowledged his importance, and in an article of 1915 Percy Grainger grouped him with Debussy, Ravel, Strauss, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. His music was also associated with the Italian futurists such as Marinetti and Russolo (inaccurately, since he didn’t share their artistic aims), the critic James Huneker writing:

I never thought I should live to hear Arnold Schoenberg sound tame, yet tame he sounds—almost timid and halting—after Ornstein who is, most emphatically, the only true-blue, genuine, Futurist composer alive.

Huneker could have claimed ex post justification when it proved, some twenty years later, that Ornstein had foreshadowed the music of Russian Futurist composers like Alexander Mossolov.

Grainger was one of the few to receive Ornstein’s compositions with equanimity and see them in context, writing on ‘Modern and Universal Impulses in Music’ in Étude in 1916:

The most drastic developments of Schönberg, Cyril Scott, Ornstein and Stravinsky appear to me just as logically and inevitably the outcome of the strivings of the creative generations before them as were Bach, Beethoven or Berlioz in their day. […] We need not fear that Schönberg’s, or Cyril Scott’s, or Ornstein’s influence will tend to destroy our appreciation of ‘harmony’ any more than the chromaticists destroyed our pleasure in diatonicness.

Ornstein also established a reputation as a pianist of fearless curiosity—he gave the first US performances of music by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, Kodály and others.

But his manic modernism was short-lived. He explained later that he felt his violin sonata of 1915 (which, when the violinist Louis Krasner took it along to a chamber-music class, had got him thrown out) ‘had brought music just to the very edge, and […] I have no suicidal tendencies at all. I simply drew back and said, “Beyond that lies complete chaos”’.

That realization initiated what the Canadian composer-pianist and scholar Gordon Rumson (whose article on Ornstein in International Piano in spring 2001 was one of the first serious examinations of his music in decades), describes as a ‘third’ period, beginning around 1915 and for a while overlapping with his avant-gardist phase. Ornstein’s musical language, Rumson wrote:

organised itself into a shimmering, luminous gradation between simplicity and harshness. The melodies have a Hebraic tint, and Ornstein does not shy from placing dissonant and tonal music side by side. This shifting of style is just one of Ornstein’s creative tools. More importantly, there is a directness of emotion that makes the music genuinely appealing.

The retreat from cutting-edge modernism was mirrored in 1922 in Ornstein’s withdrawal from the concert platform, too: his music was not concerned with fad and fashion, but that was how it was discussed, and he had simply had enough of controversy. After his appointment as head of the piano department of the Philadelphia Musical Academy in 1925, he settled there and devoted the rest of his career to teaching, setting up the Ornstein School of Music in the city in the early 1930s with his wife Pauline (née Mallet-Prevost), also a former student of Tapper’s and a fine pianist in her own right (they had married in 1918), and he retired in 1953.

But Ornstein continued to compose well into old age, producing a generous body of piano music. His work list also contains a piano concerto (1925), a handful of other orchestral scores (several were lost), songs and a number of important chamber-music pieces, including three string quartets (the most recent of which dates from 1976), two cello sonatas (1918 and circa 1920), the first of which rivals Rachmaninov’s in lyrical appeal, and a feistily energetic, epic piano quintet (1927) that is a masterpiece.

Ornstein’s large-scale Eighth Piano Sonata, his last composition, was finished in September 1990, when he was in his late nineties. That may well be a unique achievement. The world is familiar with the late fecundity of Verdi and Janá„ek, but they were relative youngsters. Paul le Flem composed his Fourth Symphony at 91, in 1971/2, and Havergal Brian wrote the last of his 32 in 1968, when he was 92; Berthold Goldschmidt’s Deux Nocturnes for soprano and orchestra (1996) were written by a 93-year-old, and the Canadian composer Murray Adaskin penned his last work (Musica Victoria for two violins, cello, double bass and piano) at 94, in 2000. Ornstein surpassed even those remarkable records.

Yet many of Ornstein’s compositions would not be available to posterity without the devoted perseverance of his wife, Pauline (who predeceased him in 1985). Ornstein would often wait years between composing a work and committing it to paper: he could hold reams of music in his head, complete in every detail, and perform them with complete confidence. Pauline pressed him to write them down and eventually took over the task of doing so from his dictation. Much to Ornstein’s surprise, when they sat down to notate the first three piano sonatas, he found he had entirely forgotten them.

And the musical world had entirely forgotten him. Occasional recordings came and went, but no one paid him any systematic attention—except his son, Severo, a computer scientist and early developer of the Internet, who produced a complete edition of the piano music and continues to work on the rest of his father’s output. Ornstein meantime seemed to have decided against growing old: his hundredth birthday (however imprecise the date) went by without thinning his hair or his memory, and he gave his last interview only three weeks before his death.

The music on this CD comes from each end of Ornstein’s improbably long creative career. The shorter works were written at its outset, although precise dating is difficult, particularly since there was often a gap between Ornstein’s conceiving a piece and his writing it down. Danse sauvage and Impressions de la Tamise, which together form Ornstein’s Op 13, date (probably) from 1913, and were published in 1915 and 1920, respectively, by Schott. À la Chinoise was first performed in 1916 (though it may have been composed as early as 1911), and published in 1918 by Breitkopf und Härtel. The Poems of 1917, inspired by the First World War, were written in 1917 and published by Carl Fischer that same year. The Arabesques originated soon afterwards and were published by Breitkopf in 1921. There is no documentary evidence that Suicide in an Airplane existed before 1919 (one imagines that Frederick Martens’ 1918 study, Leo Ornstein: The Man—His Ideas—His Work, would have mentioned it); in the event, it was not published until 1990, by Poon Hill Press.

Do these evocative titles point to specific stimuli in external events or impressions? Ornstein had it both ways. In an early interview (Harriet Brower, ‘Leo Ornstein, An Ultra Modern Pianist and Composer’, The Musical Observer, August 1915) he claimed of his music that:

I often have an incident in mind, which the music is designed to illustrate; yet I am averse to affixing any special title to the piece, as this may hamper the player or listener, who endeavors to picture the scene or mood hinted at. To others the piece may suggest something entirely different from the picture or mood the composer had in mind in writing it; and these may be quite as appropriate and legitimate as the one he had intended.

Danse sauvage—which bristles with extremist indications such as Presto con fuoco, il più marcato possibile, Furioso, Prestissimo; and fffs abound—takes the basic premise of a waltz and subjects it to relentless ironic exaggeration: it is both comic and disturbing at the same time, with the kind of insight that suggests a kind of madness. Ornstein described the piece as a ‘picture of primordial beings in all the savage abandonment of the wildest of corybantic revels’. Impressions de la Tamise, by contrast, is tranquil and calm, depicting the broad nobility of a great river, perhaps seen in the cold light of morning: Ornstein’s Thames is a colder, more impersonal place than Smetana’s Vltava, and the ‘Molto animato’ middle section indicates that it is also dangerous—and why Ornstein should give his memories of the Thames a French title is unclear. À la Chinoise, Op 39, dedicated to the pianist-composer Rudolf Ganz (another American-immigrant composer—and Busoni student—whose music deserves some serious re-examination), creates its effect by superposing the pentatonic melodic material high in the treble with chromatic swirls lower down the keyboard, later reversing the relationship. Michael Sellers, a Ganz student who was the first to record À la Chinoise, explained that it was ‘a musical impression of the composer’s first visit to San Francisco’s Chinatown’; Ornstein often played it on tour, his wife recalled, ‘and even in the backward towns it was always a sensation. It was easy for people to see the picture of scraps of music coming from the windows far and near and to get the weird sounds of the language in the conversation of hurried passers-by in the street’.

The ten brief Poems of 1917, Ornstein’s Op 41, are similarly dedicated to an outstanding pianist-composer, Leopold Godowsky. The original publication is prefaced by a text created expressly for the music by the American poet and social reformer Waldo Frank (1889–1967). ‘The men and women were angry together, and rended one another’, Frank wrote; ‘I stood high upon the agony of the living and looked upon men, upon the pity of men who had love and who cast love away. […] So all the years of my life shall be years of my sorrow.’ Mostly in an ABA design, the Poems of 1917 inhabit a variety of moods. No 1, ‘No Man’s Land’ (Andante espressivo), is bleakly elegiac and the relentless tourbillions of No 2, ‘The Sower of Despair’, belie its Moderato marking. No 3, ‘The Orient in Flanders’ (Andantino), retains a hint of the chinoiserie of Op 39, in stark contrast with the anguish of No 4, ‘The Wrath of the Despoiled’, Sostenuto (molto appassionato), which opens out to six staves to accommodate the chordal expanses of its closing bars. No 5, ‘Night Brooding over the Battlefield’ (Moderato e misterioso), suggests another parallel for Ornstein’s music—that of Leoš Janá„ek—though whether Ornstein knew any of Janá„ek’s music at this point is not known. No 6, ‘A Dirge of the Trenches’ (Lento), returns to the troubled tranquillity of No 1, its appassionato middle section revealing the torment that lies behind it. The apparent inevitability of the falling patterns in No 7, ‘Song behind the Lines’ (Andante con moto e malinconioso), may suggest the bleak futility of war despite the title; and there’s no relief in the poco più mosso middle section. The eighth of the Poems, ‘The Battle’, marked Allegro e molto appassionato, is the most extensive of them, generating an unremitting volley of chromatic chords, which No 9, ‘Army at Prayer’ (Allegro, ma non troppo), initially seems to relieve, until recurrent patterns of triplets take over the texture. Finally, the bitter ‘Dance of the Dead’, No 10, Vivo (con fuoco), brings an acidic conclusion to these disquieting miniatures.

The nine Arabesques, Op 42, are also studies in psychological states, likewise mainly in ABA form. Ornstein’s titles don’t offer much help. When Godowsky wrote such pieces, they were usually deliberate picture-postcards (as in ‘The Chattering Monkeys at the Sacred Lake of Wendit’ and ‘In the Streets of Old Batavia’ from the Java Suite), but Ornstein’s labels seem at best to offer allusion rather than specific reference. No 1, ‘The Isle of Elephants’, is a tranquil Szymanowskian nightscape, unrolling under a constant treble ostinato that seems to threaten danger until it again recedes into the distance. (The original Breitkopf publication carried French titles as well as English, revealing that ‘The Isle of Elephants’ is simply a mistranslation of ‘L’Île d’Elephantine’—Elephantine Island, an important archaeological site, which sits in the Nile in front of Aswan.) No 2, ‘Primal Echo’, sets out over another ostinato, a pungent chordal sequence that is soon swept aside in a maelstrom of figuration from which a fanfare-like figure tries in vain to emerge. In No 3, ‘Chant of Hindoo Priests’, a repeated-triplet pattern drops through the texture like a fleck on the surface of the eye; and the brief No 4, ‘Shadowed Waters’, might hint at sprites at play or lights flickering on wavetops. In stark contrast with the sections of manic rhythmic regularity in some of these pieces, the fifteen bars of No 5, the Scriabinesque ‘A Melancholy Landscape’, bring twelve changes of time signature. The relatively explicit title of No 6, ‘Pompeian Fresco’, is difficult to relate to the content, unless the superposition of the playful figure in the upper register on the tonal ambiguity of the bass reflects happy times under an unsuspected threat. There’s no such problem with No 7, ‘Passion’, whose eight bars of music (the ninth and last is silent) are unambiguously passionate. ‘Les Basoches’, commemorated in No 8, were a medieval French guild of law-clerks based in Paris who were instrumental in developing the farce—which may explain the satirical, Alkanesque bite in the music. Ornstein admitted that it contained ‘a touch of irony, a commentary on empty solemnity’. The turbulent passage­work of the final Arabesque sustains the most directly self-explanatory of these titles—‘The Wailing and Raging Wind’.

Suicide in an Airplane, written at a time when aeroplanes were made of little more than canvas and wood, is said to have been inspired by a newspaper article in which an aviator took his own life by crashing his plane into the ground. It doesn’t take too much imagination to hear the plane approach, circle over the listener and fly out again into the distance—although, of course, after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 the title and unremitting blackness of the music may carry more specific connotations for the modern listener.

Grainger’s 1916 article contains, immediately after its first mention of Ornstein, some tranquil wisdom:

What is novel today becomes normal tomorrow through familiarity, and immediately some new twist, some fresh distortion is instinctively desired, since it is always some divergence from the normal that fascinates in art. […] the more naturally gifted the man, the greater the likelihood that he will say with Walt Whitman: ‘I resist anything better than my own diversity’.

Those words apply to Ornstein in two ways in particular. First, his new twists and distortions did indeed become normal, but not for almost half a century: both the sounds themselves and his distinctive approach to notation prefigure the rise of 1960s modernism. The multi-stave layout he often employs (and which Sorabji was first to adopt, a decade or so later) is remarkable for its practicality—though his textures both sound and look complex, Ornstein’s familiarity with the geography of the keyboard allows him to expand considerably the sonic resources available to the player (initially, of course, himself) without asking anything that isn’t intrinsically pianistic.

Secondly, the profusion of Ornstein’s gifts, the plenitude of his imagination, disposed him not to resist his own diversity, and even at the zenith of his most pyroclastic modernism he was also composing music much more traditional in its mode of expression. The elegant and lovely Suite Russe and the First Cello Sonata, for example, were written alongside some of his wildest experimental works. And in the Eighth Sonata, both between individual movements and within them, contrast becomes an essential ingredient. The title of expansive first movement—‘Life’s Turmoils and a Few Bits of Satire’—suggests its progress may well be episodic, as indeed it is. But Ornstein again manages to have it both ways. The opening sections bristle with the accidentals that ensure the tonal liberty of his music, and soon lead to a passage of pounding Barbaro agitation—and suddenly we encounter a melody, marked ‘slower and with much feeling’, of which Rachmaninov or Medtner would have been proud. A Szymanowskian Calmato leads to a Tempo primo reprise of the opening material which is interrupted by the Calmato material—all brushed aside by the irruption of an intemperate Burlesca section, which Ornstein soon qualifies with a surprising direction to the pianist: ‘Keep hammering away—This is obviously a take-off’. Ornstein later added a few words of clarification:

Perhaps I should amplify the Take Off that I introduce on Page 16 line 4. A rhythmic pattern, page 16, line 2, occurred to me and triggered the image of young dancers facing each other and improvising, whether consciously or unconsciously, some choreography of seemingly primitive origins. The nervous gyrations seemed incredible. The faces, glazed and showing almost no response to what they were doing, made me want to make some musical comment on the scene. The persistent bass is its own comment on the breathless scraps in the treble clef.

As the Burlesca stomps itself into the ground, the sweetness of the Rachmaninovian melody again pours forth its balm, and a coda re-examines the music of the opening section one last time.

The second movement brings a startling structural innovation, a suite of miniatures folded into the sonata as a whole, a device that Ornstein appears to have pioneered in his Fifth Sonata of 1973/4, entitled Biography in Sonata Form: its third movement, ‘Some Flashbacks’, consists of a suite of five separate sub-movements—there, as again now, Ornstein saw no point in resisting his own diversity, and commented that ‘Some may object to the middle four Vignettes as an intrusion; others may find them a distinct contrast and relief from the brusqueness of the rest of the sonata’. This second movement of the Eighth Sonata bears the heading ‘A Trip to the Attic—a Tear or Two for a Childhood Forever Gone’ (this from a man whose childhood was almost a century in the past) and its simple textures allow the ear some relief after the complexity of the opening movement; all four sections bear conventional key signatures (elsewhere ‘accidentals apply only to the notes before which they stand’). The first miniature, ‘The Bugler’, is an innocent march, and the exquisitely gentle ‘A Lament for a Lost Toy’ has a hint of the Baroque. ‘A Half Mutilated Cradle—Berceuse’ recalls Debussy; and ‘First Carousel Ride and Sounds of a Hurdy Gurdy’ is an ABA toccatina of amusing literalness.

The third movement is headed ‘Disciplines and Improvisations’, although it’s the second word that seems to have more sway over its material. The playful atmosphere of the second movement seems to have carried over into this one, despite the complexity of the textures. Here, too, the headlong rush of the opening leads, via a Bartókian Vivo, to a Barbaro passage which is briefly relieved by filigree writing in the treble; soon a stomping quintuplet ostinato powers the music forwards, swinging between 5/8 and 6/8 until we encounter the relative calm of an extended 4/4 section—and another of those heart-stopping Rachmaninovian melodies, soon absorbed by Debussyan roulades. An intemperate chordal passage generates growing excitement, encouraged by another annotation from Ornstein: ‘Give it all you’ve got to the very end’. The last few bars are marked ‘As strident as possible’ and are followed by the date of its completion—‘September 23, 1990’—underlining that Ornstein was just as feisty a composer at the end of the twentieth century as he had been at its beginning. This work would be a remarkable achievement for a composer of any age; for one in his late nineties it’s a downright staggering accomplishment, the more so for the intellectual control which can bind such unusually disparate material into a coherent entity. But then Grainger could have chosen another Whitman quote which would have fitted Ornstein as neatly: ‘I am vast, I contain multitudes’.

Martin Anderson © 2002

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