Leo Ornstein's 1927 piano quintet ("quintette") is the most important work of this neglected American composer. Pianist Janice Weber and the Lydian String Quartet recorded the quintet in 1994, and the Anthology of American Music (New World Records) released this CD in 1997, together with Ornstein's much later composition, the string quartet no. 3. Founded by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, New World Records has a mission to preserve "neglected treasures of the past" and to nurture the "creative future of American music." The Boston-based Lydian String Quartet on this CD consists of violinists Daniel Stepner and Judith Eisenberg, violist Mary Ruth Ray, and cellist Rhonda Rider. It performs works from the standard repertoire as well as modern pieces. First violinist Stepner wrote the liner notes for this CD. In addition, Stepner performed in the first recording of the quintet in 1975 with a different ensemble. I knew Stepner when we were both kids in Milwaukee, and his violin playing was already prodigious.
Leo Ornstein (1892 --- 2002) was a child prodigy on the piano who came to the United States with his family from Russia at an early age. He quickly became famous as a virtuoso pianist and as the composer of futuristic piano compositions such as the "Wild Men's Dance", with which the quintet often is compared. In the 1930s, Ornstein dropped from public sight. He operated a music school in Philadelphia for many years. Ornstein and his music were rediscovered in the 1970s and his reputation continues to grow.
This recording offers a brilliant reading of Ornstein's masterwork. Commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the piano quintet is an immediately striking, visceral and emotive three- movement work of about 40 minutes. Although the work is highly dissonant, it is accessible in its impact and was well-received during its early performances in 1928. The work features driving, pulsating and shifting rhythms which contrast with longer lyrical sections. Ornstein's gift for melody was not apparent in the short early piano works such as "Wild Men's Dance". The piano predominates in the quintet and it makes extraordinary demands, featuring long passages of blocked chords, large skips over the register, and swirling passages of arpeggios and runs. Janice Weber is equal to the task. She subsequently recorded a CD of Ornstein's solo piano music for Naxos' "American Classics" series. Ornstein: Piano Sonatas No. 4 & No. 7
The character of the opening movement is captured by its marking of "Allegro barbaro". It is dominated by a furiously wild theme which is punctuated in several places by passages of lyricism. The second movement, "Andante lamentoso", is sad and songlike with three dramatic passages interspersed. The finale "Allegro agitato" returns to the emotional turmoil of the first movement and even quotes its themes. The work was almost surely influenced by the East European and Jewish music of Ornstein's childhood with its wailing, heart-on-its-sleeve themes and use of modalities.
In their excellent biography of the composer, "Leo Ornstein: Modernist Dilemmas, Personal Choices" Leo Ornstein: Modernist Dilemmas, Personal Choices Michael Broyles and Denise Von Glahn discuss the musical structure of the quintet in detail. The book also offers Ornstein's own perspective on his composition. Late in his life, Ornstein reflected on this music and wrote that "The Quintette is not a polite piece" and not "Avant Garde". Ornstein tended toward a spontaneous, improvisatory compositional style and said of the quintet that "It is what I heard". He wrote that "Possibly it might have been less blunt and emotionally more reserved, but if one does not sense its almost brutal emotional directness, then I have indeed failed." Ornstein continued: "The untamed emotion of the piece at first annoyed and shocked my own ears, but any attempt to modify it destroyed whatever was genuine." (Quotations are from Broyles and Von Glahn, pp. 227-228.)
The companion piece on the CD, the third string quartet, dates from 1976. The musical language of the quartet is similar to that of the quintet of nearly 50 years earlier with its dissonance, and its contrast of strongly rhythmical sections with lyricism. There are even resemblances in the patterning of each of the the three movements. Lyricism is more predominant in the quartet than in its predecessor. It is valuable to have this recording of the lovely quartet, but the work pales in light of its remarkable predecessor.
Listeners wanting to explore a neglected American composer and great chamber music off-the-beaten path will want to get to know Leo Ornstein's Quintette in this recording by the Lydian String Quartet and Janice Weber.