ANTHEIL: Piano Concerto No. 2. Serenade No. 2. Dreams.
Guy Livingston (piano), Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra/Daniel
New World Records 80647-2 (F) (DDD) TT: 72:20
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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 No. 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 Françaix's
Sérénade 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 No. 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 No. 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
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
S.G.S. (May 2007)