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