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Leo Ornstein: Complete Works for Cello and Piano

By Vivien Schweitzer
The New York Times (September 16, 2007)

Joshua Gordon, cellist; Randall Hodgkinson, pianist.

MOST composers yearn to have their music performed regularly, but for much of his life Leo Ornstein was blithely unconcerned with the limelight. “If my music has any value, it will be picked up and played,� he told The New York Times in 1976.

On a fine new disc from New World Records the value of his powerful works for cello and piano is revealed by the pianist Randall Hodgkinson and the cellist Joshua Gordon, admirable chamber musicians who play with passion and sensitivity.

In the early 20th century crowds flocked to hear Ornstein, also a piano virtuoso, play his avant-garde pieces. But Ornstein, a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine (who died in 2002 at 108), abandoned glittering concert halls of London and New York for the anonymity of a trailer park in Texas.

His rhapsodic, chromatically lyrical cello works are a world apart from his futurist works like the dissonant “Danse Sauvage.� The gripping Six Preludes for Cello and Piano (1930) are mostly dark and moody, veering between violent outbursts and rhapsodic introspection. They include a jaunty Presto (a scherzo of Bartokian propulsion and frenzied rhythms), a contemplative Andante and an explosively colorful Allegro Agitato.

The tumultuous Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano encompasses chromatic harmonies, alluring cello melodies and dramatic Brahmsian piano writing.

The disc also includes premiere recordings of several works, including “Composition 1 for Cello and Piano,� a Jewish-sounding lament with a sobbing cello melody, and the more astringent Two Pieces for Cello and Piano (Op. 33).

These exemplary performances should ensure that Ornstein’s cello works will enjoy some of the limelight the composer shunned for so long.