Leo Who?

by Sedgwick Clark

Forgotten repertoire is usually forgotten for a good reason. But the industrious Pacifica Quartet and Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin hit pay dirt with the Piano Quartet of Leo Ornstein at Zankel Hall on November 19. Ornstein (1893-2002) studied violin at St. Petersburg Conservatory. After his family migrated to New York City, he received a scholarship at the Institute of Musical Art (later Juilliard), where he studied piano. His early works, in the teens, were apparently the essence of enfant-terribleism. Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve quote a horrified review in London’s Daily Mail, March 27, 1914, in their Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington (Yale, 2005), a must read for anyone interested in American music:


A pale Russian youth dressed in velvet, crouched over the instrument in an attitude all his own, and for all the apparent frailty of his form, dealt it the most ferocious punishment. Nothing as horrible as Mr. Ornstein’s music has been heard so far—save Stravinsky’s ‘Sacrifice to Spring’ [sic]. Sufferers from complete deafness should attend the next recital. . . .”

He gave the first performances in America of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit and Sonatine, Schoenberg’s Drei Stücke, Op. 11, and Scriabin’s Ninth and Tenth Piano Sonatas. “In about 1920,” write Perlis and Van Cleve, “at the height of his performing career,” Ornstein abandoned his performing career to compose and teach. His modernist style became more lyrical, of which the Piano Quintet (1927) is an example. It was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the notable philanthropist who commissioned such works as Bartók’s Fifth Quartet, Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète, Prokofiev’s First Quartet, Ravel’s Chansons madécasses, Schoenberg’s Third and Fourth quartets, Poulenc’s Flute Sonata, and Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

The Pacifica foursome and Hamelin have been performing Ornstein’s Piano Quintet nearly everywhere the past year, and they will record it for Hyperion this month. Nearly 40 minutes long, it’s a spooky piece. The driving intensity of the opening movement’s Allegro barbaro alternates with exotic lyricism, perfectly integrated by the impassioned Pacificans and flawless fingerwork of Hamelin. French influences pervade the middle Andante lamentoso, which momentarily segues into the “Little Egypt” or snake charmer hoochie-coochie music (“All the girls in France . . .”) popular in America in the first three decades of the 20th century before returning to the initial lyricism. Bartókian folk dance influences the final movement, which ends quietly.

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim in her review on the Times web (11/22) perceptively characterizes Ornstein’s style in this work as “Late Late Romanticism” and wonders why it isn’t in the standard repertoire. Good question.

The Pacifica’s ardent Beethoven’s B-flat Quartet, Op. 130, with its original Grosse Fuge final movement, was a crowd pleaser, but to me was no competition after that spellbinding Ornstein discovery.

Perlis, incidentally, was Musical America’s Educator of the Year in 2011, and Van Cleve wrote our tribute to her. Vivian pioneered her invaluable oral history recordings of American composers and performers while at Yale University, and Libby succeeded her as director of the school’s Oral History program.

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