Surely, Leo Ornstein must be the longest-lived
composer of note, if not great fame. He was born in
the Ukraine in 1893 and passed away at the ripe age
of 108 in 2002. I recently heard his “Complete Works
for Cello and Piano,” recorded in 2005 by cellist
Joshua Gordon and pianist Randall Hodgkinson, and
released on CD under the New World Records label.
The disc is a generous 75 minutes, and consists
of music composed when Ornstein was in his
twenties and thirties, with the exception of
“Composition 1 for Cello and Piano,” and
“Two Pieces for Cello and Piano, Op. 33,
Nos. 1 and 2,” which the liner notes list as
“date[s] unknown.” Along with the single-movement
“Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano,” they are
recorded here for the first time. The remainder
of the disc contains Ornstein’s “Sonata No. 1 for
Cello and Piano” from 1915, and his “Six Preludes
for Cello and Piano,” which were composed
between 1929 and 1930.
While lesser known today, he achieved the height
of fame as a pianist between 1915 and 1920.
During that same period, Ornstein’s reputation
as an ultra Modernist composer occasionally eclipsed
those of Arnold Schönberg and Igor Stravinsky!
Apparently, he didn’t write much between 1930
and 1970. He resumed composing again during
the 1970’s, and would ultimately produce some of
his largest works after his ninetieth birthday.
The works on this CD were my introduction to
Ornstein. Despite his aforementioned fame as a
Modernist, the pieces I heard were mainly
grounded in tonality. Often, they featured a
strong Eastern European rhapsodic streak,
particularly evident in his single-movement
“Second Sonata,” and the “Composition 1 for
Cello and Piano.” I’ll concede that Ornstein’s use
of dissonance and chromaticism is evident in many
of the other movements and pieces on this disc;
however, they are always used within a tonal context.
Considering the fact that the cello wasn’t his main
instrument, Ornstein’s writing for it was surprisingly
idiomatic. Overall, I found his music interesting and
worthwhile, and I’m curious to hear more.
Speaking of which, a selected discography and
bibliography is included in the booklet accompanying
the CD, along with an informative essay by
musicologists Michael Broyles and Denise Van Glahn.
In fact, cellist Joshua Gordon also provided a helpful
“Performance Note,” regarding tricky musicological
and performance issues that were encountered
during the recording process.
To my ears, these performances were fine ones.
As always, New World Records should be commended
for their enterprising and imaginative support of this
unjustly marginalized music. We need more recording
companies like this one!