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.
Thank heavens for small independent labels, without whom an enterprise like this would these days be unthinkable: this disc of piano works by Leo Ornstein, which includes "Suicide in an Airplane", with its brilliantly informative liner-note, represents the rediscovery of a lost world. The biographical facts are remarkable enough: this pianist-composer from the Ukraine was born in 1892 or 1893--the truth was irrevocably obscured when his synagogue-cantor father faked his age to gain him admission to the St Petersburg conservatoire. Ornstein proceeded thence on a maverick musical career in which he gave American premières of works by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, and Kodály. Meanwhile his compositions veered between extreme atonal radicalism and sweetly romantic tonality: this CD reflects both polarities, which sometimes occur in the same piece.
The incomparable Marc-André Hamelin is in the driving seat, which is just as well since the multi-stave scores of some of these turbulent works are almost black with notes. As eccentric as Ives--though in a completely different way--Ornstein writes big compositions with a narrative drive, and miniatures which are often driven by the impulse of a single visual image. "Poems of 1917" comes across like an idealised score for a silent-film; other miniatures are expressive gems which need no pretext. The concluding sonata--completed when the composer was in his 90s--is a heady blend of Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin and Stravinsky, which triumphantly transcends the mere sum of its parts. --Michael Church