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George ANTHEIL (1900–1957)
His Carnegie Hall Concert of 1927:-

A Jazz Symphony (1925) [12:32]
Violin Sonata No.2 (1923) [8:06]
String Quartet No.1 (1924) [12:59]
Ballet pour instruments Mécanique et Percussion (1925) [26:55]
Charles Castleman (violin), Randall Hodgkinson (piano), Mendelssohn Quartet (Ida Levin, Nicholas Mann (violins), Katherine Murdock (viola), Marcy Rosen (cello)), Ivan Davis (piano). New Palais Royale Orchestra and Percussion Ensemble, Rex Lawson (pianola), Leslie Amper, David Close, Stephen Harlos, Randall Hodgkinson, Steve Little, Mark Sherman (pianos), Gordon Gottlieb, Sue Evans, Alan Raff (percussion)/Maurice Peress
rec. 1–4 April 1990, Suny Purchase, New York
re–issue of Music Masters 67094 (1992)
NIMBUS NI 2567 [60:46]

Experience Classicsonline

There’s nothing like a good bit of civil disorder to fix the celebrity – or notoriety – of a piece of music. The French seem particularly fond of a good riot in the name of Art. These days, one finds oneself rather wishing that any Classical music event could cause that kind of reaction. Take just three of many such happenings from the early decades of the last Century; The Rite of Spring – premiered 29 May 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, now universally accepted as one of the most important pieces of music of the 20th Century. Walton’s Façade – first public performance 12 June 1923 at the Aeolian Hall prompting the famous review “Drivel they paid to hear” now accepted as one of the composer’s most popular works and Antheil’s Ballet Méchanique premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées again in June 1926. This latter work has never had the chance to be judged or reassessed until now because in the original form recorded here it lay unperformed for sixty-two years. So regardless of any technical merits, this disc is a hugely important document of one of those fabled pieces of music that inhabits the history books but not the concert halls or recording studios. Great credit to Nimbus then for yet another valuable excavation from the vaults of the MusicMasters back catalogue to restore this 1990 recording.
At last you can make up your own mind about what the fuss was all about and whether this work deserves to takes its place in the standard repertoire in the way that both The Rite and Façade have albeit occupying very different ends of the musical spectrum. The added value of this CD is that it recreates the programme of the concert at the Carnegie Hall on 10 April 1927. The Ballet Méchanique captured all the headlines but the programme – which with the exception of the A Jazz Symphony – were not premieres – was meant as a sample of Antheil’s work to date and mark his triumphal return to America after some times spent in Europe as the daring devilish darling of the avant-garde. The really excellent and extended liner by conductor Maurice Peress outlines the origins and development of all the works. The excellence extends to the recording which for all the works is quite close and relatively dry but excitingly powerful and detailed. These qualities are particularly valuable in a work of such heavy and thick textures as the Ballet Méchanique but all of the music benefits from such a revealing approach. And revelatory is the only term which one could apply to the performances from all the artists involved. Headline plaudits of course will go to Maurice Peress and his New Palais Royale Orchestra and Percussion Ensemble for their skill at making something coherent out of the potential chaos of the big works. Enough to say that all the playing by all the ensembles and soloists on this disc is first class and more importantly all fully enter into the rough and tumble spirit of the iconoclastic Antheil. The disc opens with A Jazz Symphony. Interestingly, this was written in 1925 for the follow-up concert by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra to the “First Experiment in Modern Music” concert that spawned Rhapsody in Blue. For some unknown reason the Antheil symphony, although written in time, was shelved until the 1927 Carnegie Hall Concert. By then it was entrusted to W.C. Handy and his ‘All Negro’ orchestra with the composer as soloist. Handy felt it was beyond him and handed the baton to Alfie Ross, the associate conductor of the Harlem Symphony. Twenty-five, yes twenty-five, rehearsals later the piece received an ovation – a fact often forgotten in all the hooplah regarding the Ballet Méchanique. Jazz aficionados will always pour scorn on the likes of Gershwin’s Rhapsody as not ‘true jazz’. That may be so, but the sincerity in the attempt to bridge the gap between the improvised and the concert hall is never in doubt. Gershwin took Jazz seriously. With Antheil I’m not so sure. For all its brilliance this ‘symphony’ – which it isn’t if we are being pedantic – seems like an extended parody. It takes the gestures and effects of 1920s jazz and bundles them together in a brilliant but superficial mélange. Even the piano’s opening gesture after the manic rhumba of the orchestra seems to spoof the earlier work. Without a doubt it’s all good fun and entertaining – and brilliantly played here from raspberrying trombones to leary saxophones. The main problem I have with the piece as a work is that it sounds like a frenzied parody. I’m not sure Antheil likes jazz. It strikes me that there are a whole raft of jazz-influenced works from the 1920s that don’t try so hard to be bad. Because, from the ameliorating distance of eighty or so years, what once was bad now seems faintly naughty at best. Never mind, it is a delight to have the original work restored to the recorded repertoire and in as confident a performance as this. I have to say I do rather like the passage at around 7:25 when a blowsy trumpet solo is accompanied by a very Rite-like nervous oom-pah accompaniment – now that is subversive.
The filling to this concert’s sandwich is provided by the 1923 Second Sonata for Violin, Piano and Drum and the 1924 String Quartet No.1. The inclusion of the drum in the sonata is rather entertaining – at the first performance of the work this part was played by the poet Ezra Pound – a close friend of Antheil – whose mistress Olga Rudge played the violin part. Having, in my one and only professional appearance as a percussionist managed to miss the triangle during the performance of the most famous Dvorak Slavonic Dance I can say this is no easy matter but my guess is Pound was a better poet than percussionist hence the simplicity of the part allotted. Again the performers here attack the work with gleeful ferocity in all its eight minute brevity and it is very hard not to feel that shock and outrage were the two responses Antheil most eagerly sought. Of course Jazz in the 1920s meant something a lot closer to Ragtime and syncopation than the added note harmony and super-complex rhythms that were to come within twenty or thirty years. For all its noise and clamour this is not complex music – just rowdy and attention-seeking. Without greater familiarity it is hard to sense any underlying structure, again the moment seems more important than the more long-term scheme – I might well be wrong – I just can’t hear it.
The String Quartet No.1 is another single movement work. I rather like the description quoted in the liner to Mary Louise Curtis Bok who founded the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia from Antheil himself. He wrote; “... it sounds exactly like a third rate string orchestra in Budapest trying to harmonize kind of mongrel Hungarian themes ...” And that’s the composer! This is the most abstracted work here, the least sensationalist. Again played with real flair and skill. I can’t say I liked it much as a piece but conversely I cannot imagine it receiving a more committed performance. As before the recording allows all the detail to register with excellent clarity and even in the most demanding passages the Mendelssohn Quartet play with tonal beauty and easy technique.
But all this acts as a prelude to the main event, the work that all the fuss was about; the Ballet Méchanique heard here in its original scoring including pianola, multiple xylophonists, sirens, airplane propellers and eleven pitched electric bells. Has it been worth the wait, is it such a radical piece after all? Well yes and no – come on now the fence is much too comfortable a place to be sitting to leave it just yet. The really radical element is the use of the non-musical ‘instruments’ pre-echoing as it does the experiments with musique concrète in the 1950s. Indeed, you could go further and speculate that the structural use of silence presages John Cage. I love the idea that at the first performance the ‘propellers’ – which as Peress in the note drily notes were no more than big fans - blew into the audience causing extra mayhem – to which the public responded by making their own paper planes out of the programmes. Quite what the propellers were meant to add texturally to the proceedings I don’t know – even though they are allotted three specific pitches; small wooden, large wooden and metal. I wonder whether the effect is more gestural or theatrical. On this recording both the bells and the propellers are samples that are mixed into the resultant performance. Clearly this represents very accurately the exact instruction given in the score. But so ‘polite’ and ‘correct’ are the appearance of these by definition disruptive elements that I wonder if it is really what Antheil was after. From Peress’ description of the technical hurdles the composer faced it is clear that he was testing the technical boundaries of music. Originally he wanted sixteen pianos connected to a single set of pianola rolls with the pianola playing a part impossible for any human virtuoso to achieve. This is exactly what Conlon Nancarrow was to write for later. Today, the computer synchronisation of multiple parts would be a breeze. Antheil was tilting at windmills. The key to the ‘riot’ I’m sure is that Antheil’s concert manager - one Donald Friede – was a Broadway producer amongst other things. Without a doubt he would have subscribed to the “no publicity is bad publicity” adage – hence giving the press in the days before the concert headlines such as “Ballet Méchanique to din ears of New York – Makes Boiler Factory Seem as Quiet as Rural Churchyard”. I think that’s called sowing the wind ...! Certainly the abiding impression of the work is one of din. Yet in the midst of all the noise you can hear Antheil making a real effort at producing music – yes, music – that is original and striking and quite without precedent. At the time the music of Charles Ives was quite unknown and it is Antheil who throws into a big melting pot various music gestures and ideas (albeit only partially digested or even conceived) that other composers would pursue later. The mechanistic quality is strangely alienating and disturbing. I would point readers towards two excerpts on YouTube of the original Fernand Leger film entitled Ballet Méchanique for which the original music was conceived. Set against the strangely abstract disorientating images the music provides a compelling heart-beat for the film-maker’s vision. Again as Peress writes it creates a fusion of many of the artistic obsessions of the age; rag-time, futurism, the machine age to name but three. The performance, as far as I can judge is extraordinary – the multiple xylophonists – six – play with a unanimity that verges on the disconcertingly robotic. Likewise the phalanx of six pianists flanking the world’s “only professional concert pianolist” Rex Lawson. The greatest tribute one can pay to the ‘live’ pianists is it’s all but impossible to hear where the pianola ends and they begin – a kind of musical AI. Without a doubt this is music where a gauntlet has been thrown down. Returning to my riots – how curious that of the three one has become a timeless towering masterpiece, one an affectionate parody of a bygone age and one – the most superficially radical of the lot – is the one that wears its age with least grace. How often a work of art that most closely reflects the age of its creation becomes bound to that age and thereby dates. The composer Virgil Thomson was an oft-times acid-tongued critic (he wrote of Sibelius’s Symphony No.2 in 1940 that it was; “vulgar, self-indulgent and provincial beyond all description”.) however in 1925 he wrote the following appraisal of Antheil; “... for all his facility and ambition there was no power of growth ... the Ballet Méchanique written before he was twenty-five, remains his most original piece”. Possibly harsh but probably true.
A must-hear disc for anyone with any kind of passing interest in the development of 20th Century music – decide for yourself if it represents prophetic music or a blind alley. For myself, I’m glad to be able to hear all of this music for myself in such fine performances. More discs from MusicMasters please Nimbus.

Nick Barnard

See also reviews by Bob Briggs and Rob Barnett


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