These fifteen works for piano reveal a composer in his 70s and 80s exploring romanticism, improvisation, and a remarkable range of pianistic sonorities. All but one of these compositions are first recordings.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Leo Ornstein was a radical “ultra-Futurist” composer-pianist who shocked his audiences with clangorous, wild works for piano. At the height of his fame he retired from the stage to devote himself to composing. Over the next seventy years, before his death at the age of 108, Ornstein composed a startling range of piano music.
Born in the Ukraine in 1893, Ornstein emigrated to the Lower East Side of New York in 1907. In his twenties he toured the world as a radical piano virtuoso and his own compositions were compared to Schoenberg and Scriabin. One of his students at the Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia was another American iconoclast, John Coltrane. Among the most interesting features of Ornstein’s compositional language is that it is not part of any school or movement. It is almost as though it is unrooted in history. Romantic lyricism coexists with complex, polyrhythmic, dissonant, or atonal music, often in the same piece.
The pianist Sarah Cahill has devoted eight years to interpreting Ornstein’s later, unknown compositions, and worked extensively with Severo on the manuscripts. He suggested the selection of pieces for this recording. In 2000, Cahill visited the still lucid 107-year-old Ornstein in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Her playing achieves the spontaneity of improvisation yet remains faithful to the written note.