Matthew Paris :: Xiccarph :: View topic - Leo Ornsteinís Piano Quintet and Quartet Number Three
Leo Ornsteinís Piano Quintet and Quartet Number Three
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Matthew Paris
 

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 7:10 pm - Leo Ornsteinís Piano Quintet and Quartet Number Three
This excellent New World record came out a few years ago; it needs now to be reexamined given the beginnings of an Ornstein revival in this century.
Leo Ornstein was in 1915 regarded by most New Yorkers including the legendary James Huneker in his classic Ivory, Apes and Peacocks as the most important modern composer in the world. He was more famous than Prokeffief, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, partially because he was also a great indefatigably concertizing pianist with a great flair for publicizing as well as executing contemporary music. He promoted everyone from Ravel to Schoenberg in a time when very few pianists had his repertoire. His own works like Suicide In An Airplane and Wild Manís Dance had a grotesque and sensational panache we can still shiver at we look at some of his scores on four staves studded with clusters of precise fingerbusting atonality. As Huneker says, Ornstein in his time scared people.
At this point, a year after Ornstein expired at 109 we can savor his gifts differently than did Huneker, who died in 1921. Itís hard to generalize abut a composer who on principle ad no system, wrote masterful music in many ways, was as Verdi once said about himself was attentive to inspiration rather than method as he was.
One can say about this Quintet of the late 20s that it is a rhapsodic late Romanic piece singing with a Jewish cantorial quality alternating between ferocity and an elevated rapture that is sometimes reminiscent of Faure, Ravel, Bartok, Bloch, and in its lyricism occasionally of Rachmaninoff; yet Ornstein really has his own sound. One should say he was as one never entrenched in a style had a lot of sounds. To me this one seems to echo and elevate the music of a Jewish wedding.
The Quartet from the 70s is silken and fluid in its graceful asymmetries Milton Babbittís music is, though Ornstein is, atonal as he gets, hardly a serial composer, more one whose style never stays far from romanticism with very 20th century spiky extensions of an older craft. It may remind a listener of Debussy or Ravel, at times as well the music of Schoenberg and Berg though not Webern. These are both very beautiful though very different works that donít need any more description than a general geographical map taken from the air of their innumerable felicities. They have a kind of grace with their balanced asymmetries and lyricism of very beautiful women. They certainly have genius. Iíve never been able to define talent; Ornstein had it.
One should give special praise for the melodic and suave playing on this CD of the Lydian Quartet. One doesnít have to look hard to find unsettling qualities we call modern in Iranianís music. Itís very intuitive as well; it doesnít yield its delights to facile analysis. The Lydian Quartet brings out his gift of offering lovely melodies, wit, and subtle musical values that may remind some both of Haydnís humor and way of developing musical extension of ideas from germs in surprising ways. This music may have lots of heart and emotion but it is made with the formal impeccability of a statue by Michelangelo or Cellini.
Now with our computers one can download thousands of pages of Ornsteinís music including these two works from the Ornstein web site run by his son Severo and grandson David. Reading through the scores gives us a kind of access to Ornstein probably nobody ever had except the compeer himself and his family until this project went up on the Web. One can read as well as hear this CD.
It is startling one must say. First of all most if not all of the music is easy and fun to play. It all lies under the hand. There are few leaps or notes that have to be played with the arm. Melodies move by step or half step and then take a breath. Thereís a kind of vocal quality to much of it in spirit. The counterpoint is telling but spare, transparent, has a kind of steely to frail elegance.
Sometimes the development varies these lines of breath chromatically. The rhythm is at once often propulsive and asymmetrical as the jagged phrases one often finds in Berlioz; yet they have a kind of restless inventiveness we associate with Schoenberg. There are limits to what analysis can bring to a score. Maybe Iíve reached them.
Ornsteinís musical craft is conservative on the page if his vision is often futuristic. It often looks like Bach or particularly Chopin though it doesnít sound like either of these masters. Ornstein, dissonant or bizarre as he got was still working as was Bartok and Prokeffief in a broad way of thanking about the romantic, rhapsodic, sensational, grotesque and melancholic range of Byronic inner life musically set back in the 1820s by Chopin and Liszt. Its clear voiced lines are carefully fashioned in a lapidary masterful way that as pure music isnít at all coarse or sensational; on the contrary, it has an aery and rarefied quality.
Secondly, one never knows what style one is going to encounter from piece to piece. One piano suite is in the style of Mexican pop music. Ornstein apparently never came to the blank page with a set idea of entrenched ways of executing anything. He really put himself in the hands of the muse.
Given Hunekerís praise, something we have to take very seriously since Huneker himself was not merely a literary genius, spiritual guide to Mencken and famous raconteur but a pianist who wrote quite wonderfully about Chopin, we all what to know of course, was Leo Ornstein great as Huneker thought he was? The question is complicated by the fact that Huneker never heard the last seventy years of Ornsteinís music; after 1930 nobody did because Ornstein dropped out of concert life abruptly and became a musical recluse.
Most baffling is that he never could be pigeonholed as a composer as we commonly do in our hunger for simplicity in and out of the Arts; in fact we willfully for this reason, thinking that we can savor Art predictably as we can a McDonaldís milk shake, distorting the evidence of the natural range of many composers by selling them as products. Can one imagine our consumerist society some hotshot saying to Beethoven: ďLudwig, baby, do youíre thing. We know youíre good, Ludwig. Listen, whatever you do, donít surprise people. They donít like it.ď
We all know what Beethoven would say to this producer. We also know that Beethoven would be shown the gilt door and told with some show of pity told by our hotshot he should stick to playing the piano and learn Melancholy Baby; he wasnít much of a businessman.
Yet including Stravinsky and Schoenberg who had all sorts of ideas in many styles and composed circus polkas and third stream pieces for Woody Herman. Milton Babbitt told me he sometimes writes like pop songs in the style of Guy Lombardo.
Making onesí way through ninety five years of a manís work only now available is a big job. Iíll get to it. For now I want in this short and simple review to say these two camber works of Ornstein are the first signs of a shift of view of our musical history. Since Ornstein like Chopin and Liszt was primarily a pianist the sudden access to his voluminous keyboard work abruptly available in this century will certainly widen our view radically of the singular voice of a major American composer.
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