Philip Buttall
MusicWeb International
December 2015

In 1913 Leo Ornstein was on the verge of launching a major career as a concert pianist. Born in the Ukraine, he had entered the St Petersburg Conservatory at the age of ten but his family had been forced to flee Russia in 1906 because of anti-Semitic pogroms. Arriving in New York he won a scholarship to the newly-formed Institute of Musical Art, later to become the Juilliard, and was carefully groomed for his place on the concert platform. Then things started to go ‘pear-shaped’ as Ornstein began hearing strange dissonant sounds in his head followed by complete pieces. As these then ultra-modern compositions started to materialize, he became the 'enfant terrible' of modern music, or, as an anonymous critic for the London ‘Observer’ dubbed him, ‘the sum of Schoenberg and Scriabin squared’.

Yet by the early 1920s Ornstein’s life and his music had changed dramatically. He abandoned both his concert career and his highly-dissonant style. According to Michael Broyles’s excellent sleeve-notes, the reasons for the first of these are not clear, and the musical world was shocked by his sudden disappearance. Ornstein himself explained the second development. In 1915 he composed his second violin sonata, his most atonal, dissonant and uncompromising piece, and it frightened him: ‘I would say that Op. 31 had brought music just to the very edge … I just simply drew back and said, “Beyond that lies complete chaos”’. More cryptically he observed: ‘After I have lain down on the piano keyboard and sounded all the notes at once—what then?’

Just as other composers were discovering ultra-modernism, Ornstein pulled away from its rigours to allow a more expressive voice to surface. In doing so he found his natural métier, for Ornstein was at core a lyricist. His later music remains fully rooted in the harmony and dissonance of the twentieth century, but his melodies have a lyrical, poetic quality that forms a foil to the harmonic complexities surrounding them. This style, then, applies to both the Piano Quintet and String Quartet No. 2 on the present CD.

The Piano Quintet and String Quartet No 2 were both written in the late 1920s, and the former had its first performance in 1928 at a concert which also featured two works by Béla Bartók, who was also present and shared the stage with Ornstein. Whether by way of homage to the Hungarian composer, Ornstein’s first movement is marked ‘Allegro barbaro’, immediately bringing to mind Bartók’s own primitivist eponymous piece. It is equally replete in wild energy and driving rhythms, but alternating with sections of heart-rending lyricism – in fact the composer’s apparent ‘modus operandi’ for this opening movement, with its tersely-abrupt close – and one of the simplest tenets of musical construction, that of contrast. The movement is by no means atonal but the shifting veiled harmonies, frequent minor seconds (two immediately-adjacent notes on a keyboard) and tritones (an interval that gainsays the conventional major/minor key system), preclude the sense of there being an over-arching key. The second movement, ‘Andante lamentoso’ is immensely lyrical, calm and introspective, despite the occasional break in mood, and particularly towards the end, where there is an almost ‘wailing’ quality. The main theme has a clear Eastern European feel to it, reflecting no doubt Ornstein’s Russo-Jewish heritage. The third movement, ‘Allegro agitato’, returns to the vitality of the first movement and, like it, contains many changes of marking in terms of tempo and mood, and with an added dance-like input. It opens as a moto perpetuo, again with a melody with distinct Eastern European connotations – even hints of Rachmaninov just before the three-minute mark, and later in the movement, in fact. Perhaps to ensure greater overall unity, Ornstein even reprises part of one of the themes from the first movement, but its inclusion is so seamless, that it feels perfectly natural, as does the magically-hushed conclusion. Unsurprisingly, the piano-writing in all three movements is highly demanding and virtuosic, since Ornstein knew his instrument well, and the full extent of his own phenomenally prodigious ability. To this end, there could hardly have been a better choice of pianist than Marc-André Hamelin, and the superb playing from the Pacifica Quartet is just as able to comply with the ferocious demands of the score.

Apparently very little is known about the origins and composition of the String Quartet No 2, Op 99, which was probably completed in 1928 or 1929. Like the Piano Quintet, the String Quartet No 2 is in three movements, following a typical fast-slow-fast pattern. The first movement begins with an Ornstein thumb print—a lyrical melody over an ostinato, though here the tempo indication is just ‘Moderato ma animato’. As with the Quintet, there are many changes of meter, tempo and mood, and, once more, some of the melodic material has that distinct Eastern European sound, mingled with fleeting reminiscences of Stravinsky and Ravel. Without the piano, Ornstein has had to focus on coming up with material that is then distributed evenly between the four individual voices, often by way of short, motivic phrases, passed from one instrument to another. This in itself helps suggest Ornstein coming close to achieving a contrapuntal texture, something which is noticeably absent throughout his oeuvre. Perhaps as a virtuoso pianist first and foremost, he never really perceived the need to master contrapuntal writing per se, especially as the possible academic restraints imposed could seem to fly in the face of his innate lyricism, and indeed be something inherently less germane to the piano as an instrument. As Broyles rightly postulates, a string quartet by nature demands some sort of contrapuntal activity, as Haydn, who pioneered the genre, quickly discovered, and which Beethoven appreciated in particular in his late quartets. Broyles says: "In Ornstein’s Op 99 the motivic material and the specific moment often shout ‘a fugue is beginning’, but the composer never follows through. Instead he creates the effect of an interlocking dialogue of different instruments, something similar to the textural synthesis Haydn achieved after experiments with his own stricter fugal movements”—‘fugato’ passages, then, rather than perfectly-formed fugues. Haydn, however, never completely abandoned strict counter-point."

The second movement, marked ‘Lento malincolio’, and the shortest of the quartet, is especially powerful with its poignant melancholy emanating from its opening cello solo, later taken up and expanded by viola. More-animated sections follow, but these never transmute the overall emotional tone of the movement, which ends quietly with sustained chords. Ornstein’s lyrical mastery is certainly on full display here. The finale (‘Presto con fuoco’) once more opens with a driving rhythm in the cello, and builds up with help from the other players. Again there are sudden changes of tempo and mood along the way—from ‘lento’ to ‘barbaro’—and several rousing climaxes, too. The writing is highly chromatic, but at times repeated perfect fifths in the cello do provide a powerful anchor and foundation, as well as moments of greater tonal stability. As with the Quintet, the ending is essentially understated, becoming progressively more tonal, bar by bar, during the last twenty-five seconds’ run-up, and concludes with what might best be described as a modified Phrygian Cadence—a modal example where the final tonic, or key chord is approached from a semitone (half-step) above.

Although it has no further bearing on the music heard on the present CD, it is interesting to read that, except for two commissioned orchestral works in the 1930s, Ornstein went silent for forty years after composing his second string quartet. Only in the 1970s did he take up his pen again, and his last major composition, his Piano Sonata No 8 was written when he was a mere 98 years old, before his death in 2002 at the ripe old age of 108.

The name Leo Ornstein has always been familiar to me. But as a musician whose comfort-zone essentially encompasses the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods, I have to admit to having been somewhat undecided when offered this new CD to review, given that I knew more about his ‘enfant-terrible’ reputation, than his apparent lyrical qualities, not ever having taken the time to get to know anything more about his music. As a pianist, I always feel more spiritually drawn to chamber works with piano, than string quartets, quintets or sextets, and when the composer also happens to be a ferocious pianist with phenomenal talent, then this can tend to make the distinction even greater for me.

Those short sample tracks generally available online can certainly help us, when faced with the decision of whether to acquire a new CD of unfamiliar music from a hitherto unknown composer. But the moment I clicked on the first snippet, I knew that this was going to be something the like of which I hadn’t come across in many years’ listening, and once having heard a couple more samples, I found myself was well and truly smitten.

The complete CD is an absolute revelation, and one which I could otherwise so easily have dismissed initially as ‘just not my cup of tea’. Ornstein connects with such a truly individual voice in both works, that it really makes this CD eminently so special. True, as a pianist, I prefer the Piano Quintet, but the Second String Quartet will surely have strong support too, from the chamber-music fraternity.

I have often found that works where true motivic development is lacking can become tedious, as one idea or texture is simply just replaced by the next—rather like an attractive train journey but that leads nowhere. It could be argued that these two works fall into that same category, but, and for whatever reason—perhaps it’s simply the sheer magic of the stunning performance by Hamelin, and the Pacifica Quartet—that I never wanted either work to end, with that—for me quite rare—urge to 'play it again, Leo' but whichever camp you eventually end up in, you’ll never know until you get hold of a copy yourself.