His Violin Sonatas chart as starkly as any other genre the staging posts in George Antheil’s development from Futurist to neo-romantic. The subtext is the exceptional rapidity with which he absorbed and projected new selves very early in that process, as the vast differences in size, intent and significance between the three sonatas written in 1923-24 illustrate.
His four-movement First Sonata was dedicated to Olga Rudge, the violinist later to become Ezra Pound’s companion. The acme of the percussive early 20s, whether chordal or ostinati the sonata is saturated in Stravinsky’s barbaro inheritance, Rite-rich but inclining just as much to L’Histoire du Soldat. Its rhythmic insistence is accompanied by a near-obsessive sense of spinning repetition, giving the first movement the force of a vortex. After which the North African suggestiveness of the second moment, scalar, and very evocative, comes as a kind of bizarre balm, to be intensified by the misterioso third movement. The finale returns to the pent-up percussiveness that began the sonata, full of piano clusters, taut bowing and an almost exhausting vehemence.
The rapid conjunctions of moods in the sonata, along with sustained periods of percussive repetition do not in any way prepare one for the Second Sonata, dedicated to Pound, and a larky nine minutes of Antheil-the-debunker. This is a sarcastic collage of a work, a kaleidoscope of popular ballads played on the violin only to be battered and buffeted by the piano. Bar-room ragtime reigns. A few percussion repetitions do remind one of the earlier sonata before Antheil lets the violin and a drum (uncredited – but played here by the pianist?) take the music off into an indeterminate sound world; Tango? Arabic? It’s anyone’s guess.
The following year his single-movement Third Sonata returns to Stravinsky and the idée fixe of obsessively spiraling figures. But this time the music is slightly clearer in its neo-classical affiliations, and a mood of reflectiveness slips in more overtly than before. It’s more conventional, without a doubt, and perhaps its satisfactorily achieved final measures are more obvious than one would expect from Antheil at this point. But perhaps, too, the frenzy of the first two sonatas was impossible, and undesirable, to replicate.
He returned to the genre during 1947-48 writing a Fourth Sonata. This time the spirit is cocksure with a whistling insouciance; a boulevardier’s strut. Tartness remains but it has been effortlessly incorporated into the fabric of the music to such an extent that, for instance, he unveils a Passacaglia-Variations of sonorous breadth. And while vestiges of Stravinskian methodology remain in the finale too, they are more than counter-balanced by a kind of jovial swing and an easy-going lyricism.
These wide-ranging stylistic traits are not easy to encompass but the Fagiuli-Toffanin duo really get to grips with Antheil in this forthright sequence of performances. They are admirably suited to the music and project its bewildering variety with requisite boldness.
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