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George Antheil
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Jazz Symphony; piano pieces: Jazz Sonata, Can-Can, Sonatina, Death of Machines, Little Shimmy.
Markus Becker, piano; EijiOue, conducting the NDR Radio Philharmonic

Review By Joe Milicia
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  George Antheil clearly took some kind of pride in being labeled "the bad boy of music" — he used the phrase as the title of his 1945 autobiography. In the 1920s he was notorious as the composer of Ballet Mechanique, written for an experimental film but creating outrage during concert performances, thanks in part to a roaring airplane propeller in its percussion section. He was also known for being one of those young Americans in Paris in the ‘20s, hanging out in literary/musical circles and fusing jazz to modern classical music. A recent CD from the German label CPO brings together a well-chosen collection of piano music, mostly with orchestra, from this period, when the composer was only in his 20s himself. Though none of it is as electrifying as Darius Milhaud’s La Création du monde or Aaron Copland’s Piano Concerto — jazz-inflected music from the same decade — the works on this disc are full of pleasurable surprises and brilliantly performed.

The great influence on the First Piano Concerto (1922) is not jazz, however. The CD booklet article calls the piece "a quite unmistakable tribute to Igor Stravinsky," but the word "plagiarism" might occur to the unkind, considering the strong echoes in particular of Petrushka, which is more or less quoted in a number of places. (The Gramophone, June 2006, called it "musical pickpocketing" and thought it "a riot.") But the concerto, in one 22-minute movement with an unpredictable structure, has attractive qualities of its own: a sprightliness and breeziness, more French than Russian; colorful percussive writing for the piano; fresh, playful orchestration, dominated by woodwinds and brass; and quieter passages that contrast the predominantly perky mood. Evidently it had its public premiere only in 2001; it’s difficult to get clear information from the quite lengthy but sometimes impenetrable booklet essay by Eckhardt van den Hoogen, CPO’s house writer.

The Second Piano Concerto, dating from 1926, is about the same length as the First, but is divided into three movements connected without a break: a longer Moderato followed by a Largo and an Allegro. Again winds dominate the chamber-orchestra texture, but there are few moments that could be called brash, and this concerto’s Stravinskian echoes are neoclassical and rather less conspicuous. It’s a difficult piece to characterize beyond saying that it has neo-baroque elements, especially in the piano writing; recurring themes, though it’s full of unpredictable turns; and a cool rather than hyper-emotional demeanor, with a quiet, tossed-off ending. If a piece of music can be genial and aloof at the same time, this is such a piece, as vernal as the First Concerto but less "boyish," more calmly confident. Markus Becker and the NDR orchestra of Hannover under EijiOue (former maestro of the Minnesota Orchestra) play both concertos with utter conviction.

Antheil’s Jazz Symphony, the most familiar work on this CD program, is an 8-minute piece written in 1925 for the same Paul Whiteman concert that premiered Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Unfinished in time, it had to wait two years for its own premiere, with the W.C. Handy jazz orchestra, only to be overshadowed by the scandal of Ballet Mechanique on the same program. In 1955 Antheil wrote a version for a reduced orchestra (from 31 down to 18), with no saxophones and only one piano; it is this version that Oue offers, though the CD does not make it clear whether Becker or an unnamed NDR pianist participates. (The piano part is prominent in only a couple of places.) A kaleidoscope of shifting jazz rhythms, the piece brings to mind Milhaud’s Brazillian-flavored Le Boeufsur le toit (1920), Satie’s raucous Parade ballet  (1917) and again Stravinsky, but it’s a good deal of fun to hear, and the Japanese Oue and his German orchestra play it with verve.

The remainder of the CD is devoted to solo piano pieces — though CPO’s listings (once again) do not make this clear. The Jazz Sonata of 1923 is in a vein similar to the Jazz Symphony — sassy and even shorter (less than two minutes long), with tricky syncopation and percussive style. The Can-Can, the longest of these works at nearly five minutes, is a virtuoso encore piece with touches of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody as well as echoes of the French music hall, with a perversely slow, quiet close. The Sonatina stands out for being closer to atonality (except for the final chord) and more contrapuntal than the other works, while Death of Machines (aka Sonata No. 3) has "mechanical" rhythms and seems to bust a spring near the end; these are rather quiet machines. Finally, Little Shimmy has bluesy melodic fragments against a slow, steady pulse like that of the "Blues" movement of Ravel’s Violin Sonata (1927). All the pieces are played with rhythmic incisiveness and evident relish by Markus Becker.

CPO’s recording is excellent, with the piano sounding warm rather than glassy or jangly, even in the "coolest" and the most percussive passages, while the orchestral solos are revealed to be full of character without being overly spotlighted.

 

 

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