Ornery iconoclast that he was, George Antheil lived it up in Europe in the early 1920s. Life was good for an American who earned more money than he could spend, and he duly bought more modern art than he could hang on his walls. He also became a one-man subsidising machine for a host of artists. Like a lot of Futurists his art didn’t have much of a future, but it was hot while it lasted … and so here is Antheil enjoying celebrity, and bad-boy, rich-boy status, in Berlin in that first post-war decade.
Written for himself to play Antheil’s piano music aspires to the condition of the player piano, an ideal weapon in his campaign for ultra-avant-garde supremacy. All the tropes of the decade are here. Relentless Ragtime animates the Fourth Sonata, subtitled ‘Jazz Sonata’, a work that lasts all of 1:49. A man in a hurry - and a musician who couldn’t stick around for sonata form platitudes - Antheil lent an ear to Dance Band music too. The Sonatina für Radio,
composed in 1929, has a cocksure Gershwinesque cut, but an angular off-beat drollery. This kaleidoscopic conjunction of rolling Ragtime is like a telescoped hymn to his native country. But he also listened to other iconoclasts too; Satie, for one, whose shadow is behind Valses Profanes
where one feels it is being gently gulled. He also clearly listened to another high-flying modernist, Leo Ornstein. The smart-aleck titling of Golden Bird, after Brancusi
doesn’t disguise the debt to Ornstein’s À la Chinoise
of 1916. More influential is the mechanistic, proto-minimalist Second Sonata; The Airplane
which perhaps carries a more dynamic Futurist message. Magisterial and fascinating, a juxtaposed mosaic, and more Braque than Beethoven, this is a central piece in his 1920s portfolio.
Futurism in Crisis could almost be the subtext of the Third Piano Sonata: Death of Machines
, its Wellsian subtitle strongly amplified in a series of imperfections in its four brief movements. The Fifth Sonata, stretching out to 3:47, has the cheek to quote Denza’s Funiculì, Funiculà
but otherwise lacks the arresting drama of some of the other sonatas of the period, emphasised by the First Sonata – composed a little earlier in 1923 – which crystallises Antheil’s early mechanistic player-piano aesthetic. Subtitled Sonata Sauvage
it’s something of a composite work and absurdly, deliberately unbalanced. The first two movements originally appeared independently but the final two, lasting barely two minutes in total, offer a bizarrely fast riposte to the earlier as-good-as-unplayable status of the first two. Guy Livingston somehow gets his fingers around this unholy disorder.
, alternating sarcastic and romantic-seeming elements, and Tango
from the 1929-30 opera Transatlantic
even though Janus-faced contains surely – in the case of the Tango
- some of Antheil’s most conventional Berlin work. In the Suite for piano four-hands Livingston is joined by Philippe Keler. Composed in 1922 but revised in 1939, this vaudeville affair contain slight Ragtime, Stravinsky, character studies, fun-poking and much droll, blink-and-you’ve-missed-it humour. As if to incinerate the whole CD, Livingston, Keler and Stéphane Leach play the six-hand Serpent mécanique,
originally for piano roll, and here arranged by Livingston.
There are a number of world première recordings here – The Fireworks
movement of Valses Profanes with an Introduction of Fireworks, Swell Music
, For Merle
, the Transatlantic Overture
, the Suite, and the Serpent mécanique.
Livingston, wearing a top hat in his booklet photograph, is a kinetic kindred spirit of Antheil’s. He has the aesthetic and the chops. It’s all pretty exhausting but Antheil fortunately wrote tapas not beef steak and he remains addictive and brilliant, a one-man cul de sac.