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CD Review

George Antheil

The Soul of the Provocateur

  • Piano Concerto #2
  • Serenade #2
  • Dreams
Guy Livingston, piano
Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra/Daniel Spalding
New World Records 80647-2 72:20
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Bad boy, bad boy. Whatcha gonna do?

During the Twenties, George Antheil flared across the musical sky of Paris with a series of brilliant, highly experimental works like the Ballet mécanique and the "Airplane" Sonata. Music critics and philosophers published important articles about him. Ezra Pound tapped him as his "musical advisor," and took part (on the drum) in a performance of Antheil's Violin Sonata #2. Aaron Copland wrote, memorably, that Antheil "had Paris by the ear." Not too shabby for a boy from New Jersey. By the end of the decade, however, Antheil's star had dimmed. He had a restless mind and had begun what would be a lifelong journey to find another style. He felt the influences of Stravinsky and, later, Shostakovich. But Paris wanted more shock, and in the United States, to which he had returned, his radical works were held against him. He became known as the "airplane-propeller man," as if Ballet mécanique were the only thing he had written.

People have, I believe, an odd idea of how most composers work. Civilians give composers credit for more facility than they actually have, and very few good composers write to an agenda. Those who do – like Boulez, for example – tend not to produce very much. Instead, most composers write the music that's in them. With Antheil, it's not a matter of switching from experimental to conservative, as one would simply change the setting on a microwave. Clearly, he wanted to extend the expressive range of his music. In that, he succeeded. Just as clearly, furthermore, he managed it while keeping the salient parts of his artistic personality. However, he confused the then new-music audience, who thought that he had blunted his teeth and pulled his claws. When he died, his music seemed to have died with him.

Roughly thirty years ago, however, his music began to get resurrected, notably in a series of concerts by the Dutch conductor Reinbert de Leeuw. The original version of Ballet mécanique (Antheil had disastrously revised it around 1950 in an attempt to get more performances) and the Jazz Symphony received recordings and have begun to enter the repertoire again. Even Naxos, the Everyman's Library of classical music, has a version of the ballet. Labels (naturally, the smaller ones) are exploring Antheil's catalogue beyond the Twenties.

The ballet Dreams, written for Balanchine, takes a libretto originally created for Milhaud. Balanchine had in 1933 choreographed it to that music in Paris, under the title Les Songes. For some reason, he disliked Milhaud's score and the following year in New York went to Antheil for a substitute. I love the Milhaud (currently available on Pearl 9459), but I also like the Antheil. Editorial questions plague the work, however. The manuscript indicates large cuts throughout, and one never really knows whether Balanchine insisted on them or Antheil made them out of conviction. I would have preferred a recording of all the music so I could sort things out for myself, but you can't have everything.

The music struts like a boulevardier, very similar to Francaix's Serenade or to the cheekier Poulenc. Already we have come very far from Antheil's radical machine-music. This kind of music always runs the danger that someone will undervalue it, even though a composer probably sweats just as much, if not more, as over some dour, "important" piece. As Chesterton once wrote, it's hard to be light; levitating is a miracle. Antheil pulls it off.

The Piano Concerto #2 of 1926 is Antheil's first big work after the radical period. Here, one feels the powerful and obvious influence of Stravinsky's 1923 Concerto for Piano and Winds. To the French, it must have seemed a case of "Been there, heard that," but the Antheil has its own excuse for being. It has the gravitas of the Stravinsky, without the thickness, and it's chock-full of great ideas, provocative takes on Bach's keyboard music that, Stravinsky aside, are at least ten years ahead of their time. In three movements, corresponding to a French overture, aria, and toccata, the concerto – in contrast to the conscious monumentality of the Stravinsky – creates an impression of compulsive oddity. It uses only a few ideas, most of which reappear in different guises from movement to movement. You would think that this would lead to coherence, but instead Antheil turns from one idea to the next apparently by caprice. The effect is a wild and wooly one, an antic kicking up of the heels, cheerfully surreal.

From 1949, the Serenade #2 is unlike either previous work. A darker, more Romantic sensibility has taken over, although Antheil scores lightly and economically. Guy Livingston's liner notes mention Antheil's desire to write a sustained piece, to leave the abrupt turnings from one thing to the next. The thematic economy we saw in the piano concerto here comes across as even tighter. Antheil works mainly with two ideas, one a "relative major" version of the other, like the iconic comic and tragic masks. Again, the piece is in three movements, fast-slow-fast, and these two ideas appear in all three. The slow movement is my favorite, with the "major" version of the big idea taking on the character of a cowboy, "Streets of Laredo" waltz. The finale is a typical Antheil riot, all the more effective because so lucid.

Spalding and his Philadelphians do the music proud. The capture the energy and impatience of Antheil's musical imagination. You realize that even in his later, more conservative idioms, Antheil retained the soul of the provocateur.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz