ORNSTEIN:  Suicide in an AirplaneA la Chinoise, Op. 39.  Danse sauvage, Op. 13 No. 2.  Poems of 1917, Op. 41.  Arabesques, Op. 42.  Impressions de la Tamise, Op. 13 No. 1. Piano Sonata No. 8.
Marc-AndrÈ Hamelin, pianist
HYPERION CDA 67320 (F) (DDD) TT:  77:20
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LISZT:  Six Paganini Etudes, S. 141.  SCHUBERT-LISZT:  Trauermarsch.  Grande Marche.  Grande Marche caractÈristique
Marc-AndrÈ Hamelin, pianist
HYPERION CDA 67370 (F) (DDD) TT:  57:51
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CHOPIN: Etudes, Op. 10 and 25.
Murray Perahia, pianist
SONY CLASSICAL SK 61885 (F) (DDD) TT:  55:54
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Hyperion's CD is a well-filled disk (77:20) of music composed by Leo Ornstein (1892-2002) most of which will be new to collectors. Those dates are not a mistake—he was 109 or110 years old when he died Feb. 24 2002—his actual birth date is not clear  With a lifespan of more than a century one would expect many important ties with the past, and they surely exist. Ornstein studied in Kiev with Vladimir Puchalsky who later taught Vladimir Horowitz. At the suggestion of Josef Hofmann, Ornstein was admitted to St. Petersburg Conservatory. After his family came to the United States in 1906 to escape Russia's anti-Semitic prosecution, the young man studied at the institution that later became the Juilliard School of Music making his highly successful concert debut in 1911. He had already written a significant amount of music, but soon began to compose music quite different from what he wrote before—his new music was wild and radical causing some listeners to question his sanity, although other avant-garde musicians of the time found his music worthy including Percy Grainger. Critic James Huneker wrote, "I never thought I should live to hear Arnold Schoenberg sound tame, yet tame he sounds—almost timid and halting—after Ornstein who is, most emphatically, the only true-blue, genuine, Futurist composer alive." George Antheil said in his autobiography Bad Boy of Music that when he gave concerts in the early '20s he included music by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Milhaud, Auric, Honegger and Ornstein.  Antheil also mentions that in 1922 he noticed Ornstein (a "fiery ultramodern pianist") was leaving the management of M. H. Hanson. After practicing around the clock each day for a month perfecting his technique, Antheil auditioned for Hanson and was accepted to replace Ornstein on Hanson's roster. No doubt Antheil and Ornstein were on the same wave length and respected each other. 

Ornstein gave U.S. premieres of music by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Bartók and Kodály. In the later '20s, he voluntarily abandoned his concertizing career and concentrated on composing. In 1925 he became head of the Philadelphia Musical Academy piano department, settled in that city with his wife Pauline (whom he married in 1918) and retired in 1953. He continued to compose into his last years; his last work, the Sonata No. 8, was written in 1990 when he was almost a century old!  Through the perseverance—and insistence—of his wife, Ornstein committed to paper many of his works which he previously played from the scores in his head. His legacy includes a piano concerto, several orchestral scores, three string quartets, songs, two cello sonatas and a vast quantity of music for piano. Ornstein's son, Severo, who is a computer scientist and early developer of the Internet, has produced a complete edition of the piano music as well as organizing his father's other music. The last Schwann/Opus lists but one CD containing Arabesques, Op. 42 and the Piano Sonata No. 4 played by Marthanne Verbit (Albany Troy 070).  Not listed is a July 2002 Naxos CD with pianist Janice Weber featuring Sonatas Nos. 4 and 7 and several shorter works duplicating—little of what is heard on Hyperion's disk.  I haven't heard this, but have read several highly favorable reviews and surely intend to acquire it (Naxos 8.559104).  

Martin Anderson's superb notes give detailed information about music on this CD. Ornstein's writing is challenging for both performer and listener. Incredibly difficult to play, it often features clusters of notes, invariably using the piano as a percussion instrument. Yet Ornstein also has a gentle, serene side, evidenced by the evocative A la Chinoise and Impressions de la Tamise. Suicide in an Airplane turned out not to be what I expected; it is, indeed, descriptive of a small, buzzing aircraft, but it doesn't end with a crash, it simply disappears softly. The score for Danse sauvage (which indeed lives up to its name which means "Wild Men's Dance"), is marked with terms including Presto con fuoco, Furioso and Prestissimo with many fffs. Colorful titles are given to individual pieces:  the twelve Poems of 1917 include No Man's Land, Night Brooding over the Battlefield and The Battle and Dance of the Dead; the nine Arabesques include The Isle of Elephantine, Chant of Hindoo Priests, A Melancholy Landscape and The Wailing and Raging Wind.  Movements of Sonata No. 8, Ornstein's half-hour final work, include Life's Turmoil and A Few bits of Satire, The Bugler, A Half-Mutilated Cradle, First Carousel Ride and Sources of a Hurdy-Gurdy, and ends with Disciplines and improvisations.

Hamelin plays this music spectacularly—how fortunate we are that his interests include resurrecting the neglected—it must have been a Herculean task to learn this music which often is written with multi-staves. 

Hamelin's other CD offers Liszt's Paganini studies and the lesser-known three Liszt transcriptions of Schubert marches. The first of these (Trauermarsch) is the fifth of 6 Grandes Marches, Op. 40, the second (Grande Marche) consists of two Schubert marches, and the third (Grande Marche caractÈristique) is no less than four marches.  Needless to say, Hamelin presents all of this music with virtuoso flair and consummate musicianship. As always, Hyperion's engineering is first-rate on both disks.

Murray Perahia's new set of Chopin Etudes is commendable in many ways, always poetic, caressing and musical.  However, this demanding set of 24 virtuoso studies is meant to test the performer and requires a dazzling technique for maximum effect, well achieved in recordings by Maurizio Pollini and Earl Wild.  It would be fascinating to hear Hamelin's performance of these, now that he has already recorded Godowsky's fantastically difficult set of studies based on them (REVIEW).  As Tim Page points out in his liner notes for the Perahia CD, Artur Rubinstein was intimidated by the complete set of etudes although he did record a few of the more popular ones. In Page's notes it seems an editing error omitted at least one paragraph of his comments on the Op. 25—we jump from No. 2 to No. 8 so there is no explanation of the incredible difficulty of Etude No. 6 in G# minor, whose notorious rapid double-thirds are the bane of many pianists. Joseph Lhevinne's legendary 1935 recording remains the ultimate statement on this music (REVIEW).  Admirers of Perahia surely will wish to have this CD even though the playing time is well short of an hour.  

R.E.B. (November 2002)