Ornstein: Suicide in an Airplane; À la Chinoise; Danse Sauvage; Poems of 1917; Piano Sonata No. 8; Arabesques

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LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Suicide in an Airplane; À la Chinoise; Danse Sauvage; Poems of 1917; Piano Sonata No. 8; Arabesques
PERFORMER: Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Once a notorious enfant terrible, Leo Ornstein died earlier this year at the reputed age of nearly 110. Russian-born, brought to the USA as a child, he was notorious as a leading contemporary-music pianist and an uncompromisingly radical composer. The extreme dissonance and machine rhythms of his early pieces, outdoing contemporary Bartók, Stravinsky, Cowell and the then-unknown Ives, have to be heard to be believed: Hyperion’s notes describe Ornstein’s modernism as ‘pyroclastic’. The Poems of 1917 (dedicated to Godowsky), searing miniatures in protest against the folly of the Great War, with their immediate successors, the blackly intense Arabesques, establish his credentials as an original and striking voice. And a prophetic one: Impressions de la Tamise has pages (written in 1914, no less) more reminiscent of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux than anything before or since.


Ornstein fell into deeper and deeper obscurity after he retired from the concert platform in the late Twenties, with a resurgence of productivity in extreme old age as new generations of pianists began to explore his extraordinary output. He seems to have (sometimes, and somewhat) softened his style as his years advanced: a few later pieces ramble a bit. But the 1971 A Morning in the Woods is a beautiful piece of keyboard impressionism by any standards, and the late Seventh and Eighth Sonatas contain some marvellous things. The first movement of the latter, composed in Ornstein’s late nineties, provocatively juxtaposes percussive-mechanistic barbarism, expansive neo-Rachmaninovian melody and oriental fioriture (Marc-André Hamelin is mesmerising here).


Janice Weber is an excellent guide to Ornstein’s imaginative world, yet her account of the splendid Fourth Sonata, whose echoes of Debussy and Stravinsky intermingle with the Romantic emotional directness that is Ornstein’s own, doesn’t banish memories of the yet more incisive and rhythmically focused one that Marthanne Verbit recorded years ago on a Genesis LP. Hamelin proves, as so often, a different order of interpreter entirely, as a quick comparison of the items duplicated on these two recitals will demonstrate. Nevertheless, the growing clan of Ornstein fanciers will rightly want both discs for their wealth of stimulating and frequently astonishing music, ultimately unlike anyone else’s. Calum MacDonald