Apr/May 2003

m a k i n g   t i m e


with Don Mager

Recovery, Rediscovery

Leo Ornstein. Piano Sonata No.8, Suicide in an Airplane, A la Chinoise,
Op.39, Danse sauvage, Op.13, No.2, Poems of 1917, Op.41, Arabesques, Op.42
and Impressions de la Tamise, Op.13, No.1. Marc-Andre´ Hamelin, piano.

Hyperion CDA67320 (2003)


By any standard, Marc-Andre´ Hamelin is a phenomenal pianist with recordings of such daunting and diverse composers as Chopin, Liszt, Reger, Busoni, Villa-Lobos, Roslavets, Rsewski and the complete sonata cycles of Medtner and Scriabin. He brings to the keyboard the technical brilliance, historical stylistic nuances, percussive passion, and architectural scope and delicacy, without which any of these would be exercises in bombast. I cannot imagine a better-suited pianist to take on this repertoire of Leo Ornstein, for his piano works demand a similar pianist vocabulary—ranging the gamut from thundering tattoos to impressionistic filigrees.

But who is Leo Ornstein, you ask?

Let me quote the first paragraph from Martin Anderson's liner notes:

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. (p.1)

In past installments of this column, I have written about late works by Ernst Krenek and Elliott Carter, marveling and rejoicing in their late exfoliations of freshness and vitality. And of course Haydn, Verdi and Jana´cek have long been reference points of musical longevity and late-life brilliance. Anderson documents four composers who wrote final works in their nineties—none household names. The Piano Sonata No.8, recorded here, was finished in September 1990, when Ornstein was in his late 90s. This was his last composition, although he lived another 12 years, working with transcribers to get down many of his other works which although intact in his phenomenal memory had never been written in full score. Some of these works went back 70 years.

Born in the Ukraine in 1892 or 1893, Ornstein made his public piano debut in 1911, having trained in the Russian pianistic style of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin. But quickly he made his mark as a champion of the new music: Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Debussy, Ravel, Bartok and Kodaly. When his family migrated to the United States to escape the pogroms directed at Jews, he brought this new repertoire to American audiences and concretized widely. He performed his own works as well and quickly found publishers and critics to support him. The other works on this CD come from that period of first maturity and include the Poems of 1917, Op.41, a set of ten pieces in response to WWI that have a towering musical vitality. They are to my mind, a musical equivalent to Wilfred Owens's war poems.

Over 70 some year later comes his eighth sonata. This is no simple swan song. Almost 30 minutes in length, it is a huge piano odyssey of astonishing architectural density. Let me list the movements.

I. Life's Turmoil and a Few Bits of Satire

II. A trip to the Attic—A tear or Two for a Childhood forever Gone
The Bugler
A Lament for a Lost Boy
A Half-mutilated Cradle—Berceuse
First Carousel Ride and Sources of a Hurdy-Gurdy

III. Disciplines and Improvisations

All this might put one in mind of Charles Ives, certainly a composer whom Ornstein would have become familiar with during his long life in America. The Ives connection is reinforced with piano markings like "Give it all you've got to the very end" and "As strident as possible." But the connection is superficial, and Ornstein is no belated imitator.

The musical style of the eighth sonata has roots in the eruptive percussive piano works that followed in the wake of WWI, what is sometimes called that barbaro style, because it sought to return the piano to its origins as a percussion instrument, rather than a symphony orchestra manqué. There are pages of this work that come close to the most violent sections in Prokofiev's cycle of WWII sonatas. But with this said, the work has nothing nostalgic or anachronistic about it. Its imaginative vitality makes it fresh and authentic to its date 1990, while stylistically it seems at the same time to be a summation of a number of innovations that the entire century.

The same thematic material is used throughout but gets configured in startling different ways. The first movement feels like a grand sonata structure, though I don't have a score before me to confirm this. There are three types of thematic material: a rich Scriabinesque chromatic theme with lushly tart harmonies, a briefer impressionistic passage, and a driving toccata passage. These are cycled and developed, with the first material taking a central role in the coda, such that the movement aspires to the emotional grandeur of a large late romantic sonata. Without break, the second movement borrows from these materials in smaller snippets, almost like a suite of children's pieces (as Debussy, Bartok or Prokoviev might have conceived), all presented whimsically, fleetingly, even fragmentarily. One imagines that the composer's attic has spilled out old photographs, or toys from his childhood. The third movement again uses the same trio of contrasting materials, but more as a furious rondo. Where the lush chromatic material comes to dominate the first movement, the toccata material becomes the rondo's primary theme, returning again and again, each time more percussive, more furious, more driven, until in the final moments it rushes vertiginously into an explosive climax of virtuosic pianistic fireworks. Ornstein embodies so much thrilling defiance in these final moments that one cannot escape the belief that it is a nonagenarian's manifesto "See, folks, how much life is in the old boy yet!"

Not only does this sonata have an architecture that makes its 30-minute span easy to grasp and hold onto, the musical character of the major materials after and second or third listening is memorable and affective.

I can see no musical reason for this work not to become a repertoire staple for pianists who seek vehicles for dynamic recitals that simultaneously challenge and thrill their audiences. For the pianist it must be lots of fun to play this work in live concerts, because for audiences, if played as well as Hamelin plays it, it must produce an instantaneously overwhelming effect. A CD is planned of Ornstein's fourth sonata. Is this the beginning of a larger rediscovery? If so, I for one can't wait to recover and discover more Ornstein.


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