* Piano Concerto No. 2
* Serenade No. 2
Guy Livingston (piano), Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra/Daniel
New World Records 80647-2 Total time: 72:20
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 mecanique 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
mecanique 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 mecanique (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 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 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.
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