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Monday, October 22, 2012

Leo Ornstein, Piano Music Volume One

There were a handful of composers who at the turn of the century or so pushed late romantic piano music off the deep end through an extreme, edgy chromaticism, augmented-diminished intervals, fourths, and a music that touched the limits of tonality and went beyond. There was Scriabin, the Ives of the "Concord Sonata," Sorabji, Prokofiev, and there was Leo Ornstein. Funny thing about the latter though, is that he managed to live 109 years, passing away only in 2002, and was actively composing up until 1980! He lived to see modernism triumphant, and an era that followed where the time was ripe for his revival.

There were his years as the avant composer in the limelight, mostly the '20s, then the many years of relative obscurity, through to the day before yesterday. And here we are today of course, in a good position to hear his music again, to appreciate it anew.

Pianist Arsentiy Kharitonov and Toccata Classics look as if they are going to redress the years of relative neglect in a series of recordings dedicated to his work. We have the first installment, Piano Music, Volume One (Toccata Classics 0141).

Three of the works presented here are first recordings: the "Four Impromptus," s300A (1950s-76), "In the Country" s63 (1924) and "Cossack Impressions" s55 (c. 1912). There is also his "Piano Sonata No. 4," s360 (c.1918).

Not all of this is the "bad boy" modernism for which he became most known. All of it has an impressive pianism, a tempestuous quality, a conception of the piano as an orchestra unto itself and a heroic virtuosity. His Russian roots show through brightly as well.

There are some breathtaking moments and a consistently high level of musicianship on the first volume, thanks to Ornstein's brilliance and the very appropriate pianistic fireworks of Arsentiy Kharitonov. A great start! Bravo!


  1. I have listened to this CD and must say that I was simply blown away by it. I also happened to print out many of the pieces and realized that the creative part of the performer is simply amazing. There are no directions in the music mostly, no tempi or volume markings even, let alone any character indications. Mr. Kharitonov possesses unusual depth of thought and perception; he is fluent in the true language of music, he is a poet, a marvel. I have not heard any young pianists play with so much insight and true creativity. Many have plenty of virtuosity and brilliance - as does he - but the soul shining through is of the rarest kind.

  2. Thank you for your perceptive, insightful comments. Yes it is indeed a marvelous performance!