Leo Ornstein, Complete Works for Cello and Piano
Joshua Gordon (cello) & Randall Hodgkinson (piano)

New World Records 80655-2

Six Preludes for cello and piano (1929-30)
Composition 1 for cello and piano* (date unknown)
Sonata No. 1 for cello and piano, Op. 52 (1915)
Two Pieces for cello and piano, Op. 33 nos. 1 and 2* (date unknown)
Sonata No. 2 for cello and piano* (ca. 1920)

* World Premiere Recording

Well, not quite. Ornstein was part of that multitude of heralded geniuses at the onset of modernism (back when it was called Futurism). He made quite a splash, prompting one critic to deem him the sum of Schoenberg and Scriabin squared, but posterity has endowed only a fraction of their fame on poor Leo, who disappeared into academia after his initial notoriety.

The new recording by Joshua Gordon and Randall Hodgkinson of Ornstien’s Complete Works for Cello and Piano seems to confirm posterity’s judgment. The compositions on this CD are all very lovely to encounter, but aside from a few haunting moments, they don’t particularly linger in the mind. Back when it was easy to become famous for breaking all the rules, enfants terribles were a dime a dozen, but Ornstein is no charlatan. His musical vocabulary is expansive, and he has a gift for creating a wide variety of textures that, left by themselves, would make fine post-modernist pieces.

However, what emerges as Ornstein’s greatest talent in this collection of five pieces is not any groundbreaking modernity, but rather, a passionate, Russian-Jewish lyricism. (Ornstein rejected Judaism as an adult, but his cultural heritage is never far afield in these pieces. In the fifth of his Six Preludes for cello and piano, he even quotes the triplet piano motif of Mussorgsky’s “Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuí¿le”.) Composition 1 for cello and piano is simply one long lament for the cello, much like the first part of Sonata No. 2. On this disc, these languorous melodies abound.

Joshua Gordon sings each melody with a gorgeous, dark tone that is utterly captivating at times. Ornstein was a crack pianist, and like most composers with prodigious piano chops, he writes some miserably complex accompaniments, all of which Randall Hodgkinson plays effortlessly. If these two are coming to your town any time soon, don’t miss them. The only flaw in this recording is the mix, which often lets one instrument overbalance the other.

One Response to “(Schoenberg + Scriabin)2 = Leo Ornstein?”
  1. david toub says:

    Love Ornstein’s music (there’s nothing finer than his sonata for violin and piano), and am delighted that Joshua Gordon has recorded his cello music. I knew Josh when we were both high school students at Juilliard’s pre-college division and he was the cellist in a work of mine (I couldn’t find a contrabassist for the part and Joshua was fine doing it on his cello). He also participated in a great recording of Feldman’s String Quartet #1.

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