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George ANTHEIL (1900-1959)
Piano Music - Volume One: Late Works 1939-1955
Judy Pang (piano)
rec. 2017, Sean Swinney Recording, 244 W 54th St., New York

I came to the music of George Antheil late, and still only have a handful of recordings of his mainly orchestral works. The American press described him as the original “bad boy of music”. He earned the epithet for his attempts to combine jazz and machine sounds into his early music, most notably his Ballet mécanique of 1924-25. That work served as my, and I dare say many other people’s, introduction to his music. My currently favourite disc presents Ballet mécanique and some chamber works, including his First String Quartet (Music Masters 01612-67094-2). When I first listened to this disc, I was therefore somewhat surprised by the neo-romanticism of the opening pieces.

Mother’s Day Piece, as the name suggests, was a piece written in 1939 for the composer’s mother. His siblings returned to America from Russia and presented her with a Bible, but George gave her this charming slow waltz. It is a similar story with The Ben Hecht Valses, although here the piece was almost a thank-you after Ben Hecht had been the first film producer-director to employ Antheil in Hollywood. Hecht had commented on the early score that it was the best thing about the 1934 film, Once in a Blue Moon, and that he particularly liked the waltz sequence. The composer put this piece together using a recurring waltz theme and a central section which, the notes tell us is “reminiscent of Ravel’s La Valse”. More reminiscent of Chopin’s Preludes, Musical Picture of a Friend (originally called Prelude in D minor) is a romantic piece composed as a gift for a woman friend; we are told that Antheil’s wife had the passionate dedication removed from the published score.

Carnival of the Beautiful Dresses was commissioned for a Fashion Exposition that took place in Dallas in 1947. Antheil wrote an introduction to the work for the program, and gave each of the thirteen pieces a witty title and description. The music is varied and fits well the titles given by the composer. Mexicali has a feel of central-American music. The Habañera-Rhumba is slower than one might expect but still retains the Latin-American feel. Autumn Fancy has a feel of someone rushing to get out of the season’s showers and wind. Antheil described the waltz that follows as “music for a beautiful tomboy”. The final two pieces give us another waltz, the sixth in the series of pieces, and a Rhumbetta described as “a little tiny rhumba not yet fully grown”. The series contains some attractive piano writing, especially in the way that Antheil develops the waltz, each showing its own specific characteristic.

The Two Toccatas of 1948 contain some of Antheil’s most challenging piano writing on this disc. Both these short pieces are full of short staccato notes. With their brilliance and call for virtuosic playing, the Toccatas call to mind the music of Prokofiev and Scriabin. The Second Toccata is the more varied, and even contains an interesting short parody of harvest hymn, Bringing in the Sheaves. This is Antheil at his most percussive. One could almost say he is looking back to the enfant terrible stage of his stylistic development. The original third movement of his Piano Sonata No. 5 has an attack that sits well with the Two Toccatas. Indeed the notes suggests that “it could as it stands have been Antheil’s Toccata No. 3”. The movement was replaced after his friend and fellow composer, Virgil Thomson, wrote to the composer that he found it a little formulaic and a “trifle obvious”. I do not know the Sonata with its rewritten third movement, so it is hard for me to compare. I hope it will be included in the next volume.

Of the two remaining waltz sequences, Waltzes from Volpone adapts music from Antheil’s opera Volpone, using the theme as an anchor from which the rest of the music hangs. The Valentine Waltzes are more substantial and varied in the way that Antheil approaches the waltz. They were composed for, and dedicated to, his long-time lover Noma Rather. Here we are treated to joyous reflections of happy times, but there are also pieces which reflect a more melancholic, almost longing atmosphere, whilst there is also a good sprinkling of irony here. There are more than a few waltzes presented on this disc, but here Antheil’s treatment of the dance sets these waltzes from the rest. I particularly like No. 9 with its jaunty atmosphere, followed by one reminiscent of Shostakovich.

The final work on this disc, like the first, is an occasional piece, the Berceuse for Thomas Montgomery Newman, the son of the composer’s friend and colleague and fellow composer, especially of film music, Alfred Newman. It opens with a beautifully lilting theme that opens into a tender lullaby.

I have enjoyed this disc greatly. Indeed it has not been off my CD player for the last four days. Judy Pang is an excellent exponent and champion on Antheil’s music. She has the ability to bring out the sweetness of the emotional pieces, and the agility and power to express the more forthright components through of the more powerful pieces of the composer and his music. I look forward to the future volumes of this series, especially if Pang is playing them. She has an ability to bring to the fore every nuance of this music. Just listen to the Valentine Waltzes where she brings out every emotion put into this music, not just the happiness, but also the despair of being parted from someone loved.

The recorded sound is very good, and the booklet notes are excellent. That is important because there is little information to be found on the pieces anywhere else. This is an auspicious beginning to this series,. I only hope that we do not have to wait too long for volume two.

Stuart Sillitoe

Mother’s Day Piece (1939)* [1:39]
The Ben Hecht Valses (1942) [5:03]
Musical Picture of a Friend* (1946) [4:25]
Carnival of the Beautiful Dresses* (1939/1946)
Two Toccatas (1948)
Valentine Waltzes (1949)
Piano Sonata No. 5 - III. Presto* (first version, 1950) [4:31]
Waltzes from Volpone* (second version, 1949–53/1955) [6:44]
Berceuse for Thomas Montgomery Newman* (1955) [2:18]

* denotes premiere recordings


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