Déjà Review: this review was first published in June 2010 and the recording is still available.
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)
New Palais Royale Orchestra and Percussion Ensemble/Maurice Peress
rec. 1990, Suny Purchase, New York. DDD
Re–issue of Music Masters 67094 (1992)
Nimbus Records NI2567 
George Antheil was, probably, his own worst enemy. Having taken Paris by storm, both as composer and virtuoso pianist, he failed, unlike Stravinsky, to moderate his language and adopt the neo–classical style which came into vogue during his stay. However, when Copland arrived in France, to study, he said that “… George had all Paris by the ear”. It was probably Ezra Pound’s call that Antheil was “possibly the first American–born musician to be taken seriously” and regarding him as the great Messiah of a ‘New Music’ which coloured the composer’s attitude. From our historical position, the fact that he failed to move with the times is no longer seen as a problem. True, some still find it difficult to equate Antheil’s early works with the more sober works he wrote after his return to the USA, but a man has to eat, and with a wife and son to support he had to work. The later works are, certainly, more conventional than the pieces from his Paris years, but there are still many fine pieces to be found, both in his concert music and operas as well as his music for film. I particularly like his score for Edward Dmytryk’s The Sniper (1952) and Ben Hecht’s Angels Over Broadway (1940). I cannot help but mention that before returning permanently to America, Antheil wrote a detective story, Death In the Dark, which was edited and published by T.S. Eliot. The plot concerns the murder of a concert agent!
Antheil visited America in 1927 to display his musical wares to an unsuspecting American public and this is what it heard! He wrote the Jazz Symphony for Paul Whiteman’s second Experiment in Modern Music concert of December 1925 – the first, held on 12 February 1924, had introduced Rhapsody in Blue to the world. For some reason it wasn’t given in that show and the Carnegie Hall concert of 1927 was its premiere, when it was done by W.C. Handy’s Orchestra with the composer as piano soloist. Antheil revised the score of the Jazz Symphony in 1955 and made it a much less spectacular and exciting work. Hearing it in its original form is a revelation, for it is wild and exuberant, great fun and it’s easy to understand that it received an ovation when it was given in Carnegie Hall, at this concert. This is an excellent performance, hard-driven, up-front and in-yer-face, hysterical and brilliantly realised. It’s worth buying the disk for this piece alone.
Antheil’s two Violin Sonatas were written for Ezra Pound’s mistress, Olga Rudge. The second is fascinating for it contains a part for drum, supposedly written for Pound to play. As it stands, it starts as a wild ride for the two instruments, then the piano launches into an almost insane cadenza. After this the drum takes over the accompaniment for the rest of the work. As with most of the other music recorded on this disk, it’s a wild, typical 1920s piece, but the performance here is a bit too polite. I once turned pages for a performance of this work given by Thomas Halpern and Yvar Mikhashoff and they threw all caution to the wind, giving a marvellously showy and fantastically over-the-top performance – just what the work needs. All that kind of extrovert display is missing here. A real shame, given the music-making of the couplings.
The short First String Quartet is a very compelling work, cogently written, well laid out for the instruments, and it’s much more mainstream European music than the other works recorded here. The performance, by the Mendelssohn Quartet, is strong and forthright.
The Ballet Mécanique made Antheil’s name and confirmed his status as ‘The Bad Boy of Music’ – the title of his autobiography which is well worth a read. It caused a riot at its premiere in Paris and Aaron Copland wrote to Israel Citkowitz, “… the boy is a genius. Need I add that he has yet to write a work which shows it.” At Carnegie Hall, Copland, together with Colin McPhee, was one of the pianists in the performance of the Ballet where, again, it caused a riot. In 1952 Antheil revised the score, but all this did was to water down a fascinating score into a less-than-interesting one. Here it is, in all its 1920s gaudy splendour, colossal, noisy, outrageous, a tough listen – without a doubt – but a rewarding one. Anyone who heard, either in the hall, or on the radio, the weak performance given at the 2009 BBC Proms won’t know what’s hit them when they hear this! It’s fantastic!
Great performances, in general, brilliantly bright sound, good notes all go to making this indispensable to anyone interested in American music and the musical experiments of the 1920s.
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