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No. 39 - Classical Music - May, 2003

Jason Serinus

 

For a few words about my reviewing process and preferences, please see the introduction to Music Reviews No. 36.
 
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Piano Music by Leo Ornstein

 

Marc André Hamelin

 

Hyperion CDA67320

 

 

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Ornstein: Piano Music

 

Janice Weber

 

Naxos 8.559104

 

 

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The Piano Music of Leo Ornstein

One of the most important near-forgotten composers of the last century, Leo Ornstein died last year (2002) at what is believed to have been 109 years of age. Ornstein began his musical career as a Russian child prodigy, taking his first piano lessons with Vladimir Puchalsky, later teacher of Vladimir Horowitz. He was admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatoire at age 12 on the recommendation of the legendary pianist Joseph Hoffman. The son of a synagogue cantor, Ornstein and his family fled his native land in 1906 (as did my own grandparents) to escape the anti-semitic pogroms, and settled in New York City where Leo began lessons at what later became the Juilliard School of Music.

A year after Ornstein’s concert debut in 1911 – he later gave the first U.S. performances of music by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, and Kodály -- he began writing music of such ferocious modernity that some questioned his sanity. He used the piano percussively, composing such on the edge works as Suicide in an Airplane. Ferruccio Busoni, Percy Grainger, and other contemporary composers soon acknowledged Ornstein’s compositional radicalism.

But just as, a generation later, the American composer George Antheil (“the bad boy of music”) pulled back from the wildest expressions of his genius, so did Ornstein respond to criticism by backing off. The shift came in 1915, just two years after his most radical works broke new ground. Later in life, describing this conscious change in his style, he wrote that he “had brought music just to the very edge, and […] I have no suicidal tendencies at all. I simply drew back and said, ‘Beyond that lies complete chaos.’”

Representative selections of Ornstein’s piano music have recently been issued on two discs.

Montreal-born Marc-André Hamelin has been lauded as one of the world’s "100 Greatest Instrumentalists" by Classic CD magazine. The prolific award-winning recording artist, labeled a “super-virtuoso” by veteran New York Times critic Harold Schonberg, won the 1985 Carnegie Hall International American Music Competition. Eventually moving to his current home in Philadelphia, he won the Gramophone Award in 2000 and received a 2002 Grammy nomination for his recent Alkan recording.

An immersion in Hamelin’s recent Ornstein release leaves no question as to why he was chosen to play live at the 2001 Grammy awards. The man’s technique and range of emotional expression are extraordinary. Married to Ornstein’s revolutionary modernism, Hamelin delivers a riveting rendition of the short, dissonant and percussive Suicide in an Airplane (1913), a work whose jarring chords sonically presage live video footage of the September 11 World Trade Center bombings. Equally astounding is Hamelin’s performance of Ornstein’s Danse sauvage. Also written in 1913, before Ornstein became aware of Igor Stravinsky’s equally percussive, riot-inducing Rite of Spring, its primitivism, savage cluster-chords, and foreshadowing of atonality render it one of the most startling and modern works of its time.

Hamelin’s achievement is highlighted by comparison with pianist Janice Weber’s recent disc, Leo Ornstein: Piano Music (Naxos). Both musicians perform Suicide in an Airplane, Danse Sauvage, Op. 13 No. 2; and Impressions of the Thames (Impressions de la Tamise, Op 13 No. 1. Weber, a summa cum laude graduate of the Eastman School of Music who now teaches at Boston Conservatory, is a fine artist equipped with hands strong enough to do justice to Ornstein’s music. But where her airplane sputters along with a series of rapid, percussive jerks, Hamelin’s sounds more convincingly like an early craft whizzing through the air. And where Hamelin creates an atmospheric, shimmering diminuendo at the start of tranquil and calm Impressions of la Tamise, sounding as though his piano is shrouded by fog, Weber’s diminuendo sounds far more prosaic. Hamelin also captures perfectly the asian slant of A la Chinoise, Op. 39, a piece written as a musical impression of Ornstein’s first visit to San Francisco’s Chinatown.

These differences may in part be due to difference in recording technique. Hamelin is flattered by one of the best English recording engineers in the classical field, Tony Faulkner. Faulkner sets Hamelin’s Steinway in a wide, atmospheric soundstage, with a near-ideal blend of balance between detail and reverberance. Weber’s piano, although colorfully captured, seems far more upfront, in your face, and one dimensional, lacking the acoustic ambience that makes Hamelin’s playing so appealing.

Many of the later works on Hamelin and Weber’s discs exhibit what the scholar Gordon Rumson described as “a shimmering, luminous gradation between simplicity and harshness.” Rumson suggests that these melodies often have a Hebraic tint (later heard in the music of Mahler, Copland, and Bernstein), placing “dissonant and tonal music side by side.”

With his music frequently misunderstood, the man who was considered one of the most important composers of the 20th Century’s second decade pulled back from performing in 1925. Instead, he and wife established the Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia where they taught through the mid-1950’s. Thereafter, Ornstein devoted all his time to composing, completing his last work, the Piano Sonata No. 8 when he was in his late 90s. His son Severo M. Ornstein, now a resident of Woodside, CA, describes the 8th Sonata recorded by Hamelin, as well as the 7th which Weber has recorded, as manifesting “fierce vigour and challenging complexity, relieved by moments of startling lyricism.”

Though Ornstein never published his work, his disordered manuscripts were preserved in Yale’s Beinecke University; 13 volumes were organized and published in 1987 by Severo. Severo has also authored the Weber disc’s liner notes, and a brief tribute at http://www.otherminds.org/shtml/Ornstein.shtml which includes a link to a video performance of Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill performing the first work on Weber’s disc, Ornstein’s 1971 A Morning in the Woods, at San Francisco’s 2002 Other Minds Festival of New and Unusual Music.

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Ewa Podles: Russian Arias

 

Philharmonia of Russia, Constantine Orbelian, cond./Spiritual Revival Choir of Russia, Lev Kontorovich, dir.

 

Delos DE 3298 (also available in SACD)
 

 

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Ewa Podles: Handel Arias from rinaldo & Orlando

 

Moscow Chamber Orchestra, Constantine Orbelian cond.

 

Delos DE 3253

 

 

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Historically informed interpretations of medieval, Renaissance, and baroque music characterized by an elevated, almost ethereal sense of refinement have become the hallmarks of ensemble Hesperion XXI's numerous recordings. Formed in 1974 by conductor and bass viol virtuoso Jordi Savall, Hesperion XXI (originally called Hesperion XX) is as equally prized for its impeccably played instrumentals as for its frequent collaborations with Savall’s wife, soprano Montserrat Figueras.

The purity of Figueras’ instrument can be heard on Ninna Nanna (Alia Vox AV9826), a new 18-track disc showcasing her singing six centuries worth of lullabies in at least ten languages. The disc is accompanied by a thick brochure that offers translations in eight languages. (Alia Vox, Savall’s own label, must spend a fortune to ship these discs).

To these ears, Figueras’ voice seems most suited to plaintive expression. Produced with minimal vibrato, the mournful quality of her haunting instrument excels in conveying the asceticism and sadness frequently expressed in early music.

In selection after selection, from the anonymous Sephardic cradle song “Nani, nani” composed ca. 1500 to two contemporary lullabies composed by the Estonian émigré Arvo Pärt in 2002, Figueras’ clarity of enunciation, even vocal production, and sheer beauty of sound frequently prove seductive. Selections such as the opening “José Embala o Menino” (Joseph Rocks the Infant), an anonymous Portuguese lullaby that includes the line “how often [Mary] is heard to sing when in her heart she weeps,” seem ideal for her instrument. So too are the anonymous Berbère “Berceuse Amazigh” (“The moon is very sad…Happiness is with others”), William Byrd’s “Come, pretty babe” (“thy father’s shame, thy mother’s grief”), and Johann Rriedrich Reichardt’s “Dors mon Enfant” (“Your hapless mother has sorrow enough”).

However, ask Figureras to perform German composer Max Reger’s 1912 “Mariä Wiegenlied,” a romantic lullaby that depicts the Virgin Mary singing to her infant Jesus, and the soprano comes up wanting. Lacking the incomparable charm and silvery, angelic tone that soprano Elisabeth Schumann brought to her magical recording of the work almost 60 years ago, Figueras’ attempts to smile fail to convince. The lyrics of Reger’s little gem may speak of the sweet scent of roses and sounds of laughter and birds, but one cannot help feel that Figueras’ mournful Virgin Mary is haunted by advance knowledge of her infant’s future crucifixion.

In a spring US tour that takes Hesperion XXI, Savall and Figueras from Cambridge and New York to La Jolla and Berkeley by way of Kansas City, the artists will explore the improvisatory instrumental dance music of 15th and 16th century composers Ortiz, Sanz, and de Ribayaz. Some of their program can be previewed on La Folia 1490 - 1701 (Alia Vox 9805), a marvelous recording that showcases how Savall’s highly sophisticated sense of color and space elevates even the simplest compositions to the level of high art. Figueras’ vocal selections from José Marin’s 17th century Tonos Humanos (Alia Vox 9802) will balance out the program. Both discs, as well as two other Hesperion XXI classics, are slated for April 8 re-release in superior sounding SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) format. Music lovers who do not act fast enough to secure tickets to Hesperion XXI’s frequently sold out programs will find solace in sampling either these discs or some of the other 100 or so recordings that feature Savall and assorted ensembles.
 

- Jason Serinus -

© Copyright 2003 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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