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Piano Sonata No 8

'Ornstein: Piano Music' (CDA67320)
Ornstein: Piano Music
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67320 
Movement 1: Life's turmoil and a few bits of satire
Movement 2a: A trip to the attic – A tear or two for a childhood forever gone. The bugler
Movement 2b: A lament for a lost boy
Movement 2c: A half-mutilated cradle – Berceuse
Movement 2d: First carousel ride and sounds of a hurdy-gurdy
Movement 3: Disciplines and improvisations

Piano Sonata No 8
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’.

from notes by Martin Anderson © 2002

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Details for CDA67320 track 29
Movement 3: Disciplines and improvisations
Recording date
24 August 2001
Recording venue
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Tony Faulkner
Hyperion usage
  1. Ornstein: Piano Music (CDA67320)
    Disc 1 Track 29
    Release date: August 2002
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