Born in the Ukraine, at the time of Russian rule, the family of the long-lived Leo Ornstein (1891-2002) moved to the United States in 1906. He would die, aged 108, in Green Bay, Wisconsin. His formative years found him performing as a pianist of considerable talent (he had studied, from age 10, at the St Petersburg Conservatory), and often championed new and boundary-breaking music. But in the early-1920s he walked away from concert scheduling to focus on composing, which he continued to do, albeit only returning after a lengthy hiatus, into his final years.
This Hyperion release couples two substantial pieces from the late 1920s, catalogued with already high opus numbers.
The 40-minute Piano Quintet (1927) opens with a movement marked Allegro barbaro (which is also the name of a piano piece by Bartók). As the direction suggests, this is high-octane music, rhythmically vital, and when it does slow it swoons, full of exotic passions, suggestive of Eastern promise. It’s not long until the rollercoaster ride continues. Thrilling stuff, and there is much expressive beauty along the way. By contrast the second movement, Andante lamentoso, is fragile and sad initially, building to emotional climaxes that remain lyrical and suggest Ornstein as a generous and outgoing composer and a compassionate man. In terms of length, the Finale mirrors the opening movement, and similarly in its alternation of foot-down drive and glorious seduction; this is music of white-hot inspiration. Lovers of the music of Bartók and Ravel need not/should not hesitate.
Away from using his own instrument, Ornstein’s String Quartet No.2 (1929), also in three movements, is similarly wide-ranging, vigorous and achingly communicative. The opening movement is lean yet sinewy, folksy, and full of heart. In its fervour and splendour it compels attention, the unpredictability a big attraction. Like its counterpart in the Piano Quintet, the slow movement is melancholic and also touchingly intimate if not staying restful for long. The Finale, Presto con fuoco, darts hither and dither, strongly accented, although it’s not long before something poetically melodious emerges, typically imbued with powerful feelings. Ornstein never seems to have been indecisive when complementing different types of music.
Both these scores call for considerable virtuosity, energy and generosity, fully met here in performances that are truly inside the music and which share it vividly and with dedication. The sound-quality is outstanding in its immediacy and clarity, and the balance in the Piano Quintet is spot-on. In short, this is a superb release of impressive music in top-class accounts.