Customer Reviews: George Antheil: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; a Jazz Symphony; Jazz Sonata
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American composer George Antheil (1900-1959) was a maverick with a flair for the wild. Most of his works were scored in the 1920s, a period of wide exploration in all the arts. Antheil's style is a crazy quilt, a collage, brief quasi quotations of other composer's styles and tunes. There is a method to this madness, there is a higher order to the chaos and nonsense of lower elements.* His music provides excitement of the unexpected yet familiar. In the first piece, Piano Concerto No. 1, we may catch a Firebird flight, a Petrushka somersault, a Debussy impression, a passage of dissonance, a tale of rhythmic chords. One theme quickly follows another, as walking fast along the corridors of a music school's practice rooms, with each student playing a different composition, a different instrument. The playfulness and "monkey-mind" absence of focus takes a turn to a more darker, more tone consistent side in the second piano concerto. At first, it seems united in some statement, but soon we realize that that it is folly; we are fooled by the somberness, the pretense, and the crescendos, to be awakened halfway in the first movement by a romp of symphonic devices and instrumental colors. The second movement has gravity, much ado signifying nothing, and the concerto's final movement is a lively, cheerful staccato. The concerti are followed with A Jazz Symphony of merely 8 minutes! Originally scored for expanded jazz chamber band and reworked in 1955 for a regular symphonic orchestra, the piece opens with a Latin American dance and later incorporates jazz blue notes, 20's style Charleston rhythms, "dirty" trumpets, a hodge-podge of quotes and touches of Chavez, Villa-Lobos, Gershwin, and Milhaud, and concludes with a grand sweeping waltz worthy of an old movie. Whatever music Antheil heard at the time, he funneled and mixed them into this witty work. (It is interesting that music sampling and mixing is a staple of today's popular dance scene.) Five brief solo piano pieces ensue. The jazz feeling continues with Jazz Sonata, a ragtime of sorts; Can-Can, which with concentration you can hear the classic quote sneaking through; Sonatina, a musical doodle; the Third Piano Sonata: Death of Machines, with its pounding keys and chords and mechanical ambiance; and Little Shimmy, in reference to the dance of the 1920's, a quiet and fading tune. Such extraordinary writing demands a virtuosic pianist and Markus Becker meets the challenge. Eiji Oue conducts the NDR Radiophilharmonie for the symphonic works. The 65-minute long album was recorded in 2004 with excellent engineering.

*Image two rows of paintings, three to each row, each painting tilted this way and that. Individually there is disorder but seen from afar, the totality makes artistic sense.
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I've been neither hot nor cold about the music of Antheil's I've heard before. And I wasn't prepared to like this issue all that much. But it knocked my socks off. I tend to like French-influenced music from early in the twentieth-century and these pieces certainly fill that bill. There is the clarity of texture, quartal harmonies, and insouciance so common in music of Ravel and Les Six. But, more, these works are quintessentially American in the impression they make. One hears echoes of Copland and Bernstein (although the latter came after the pieces heard here -- one wonders if the dance music for 'West Side Story' was influenced by Bernstein's familiarity with the Jazz Symphony). Another composer whose jazzy solo piano music comes to mind is Erwin Schulhoff. And finally there are echoes of Kurt Weill's intentionally awkward, loose-jointed style in places. Altogether marvelous stuff, this music; I'm grateful to cpo for issuing this disc.

It is rare that music makes me laugh out loud, but I guffawed a number of times, especially in the solo piano pieces -- Jazz Sonata, Can-Can, Sonatina, Death of Machines, and Little Shimmy -- by the unexpectedly eccentric rhythms and harmonies, all jazz-inflected. The same is a little less so in the two piano concertos and the Jazz Symphony (which is a piano concerto in all but name because of the important obbligato piano part).

German pianist Markus Becker, with whom I was unfamiliar, has the full measure of these pieces and he is given expert support by the NDR Radio Philharmonic under Eiji Oue. There is an immediacy to the recorded sound that is lifelike.


Scott Morrison
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on January 21, 2009
The works on this disc are from George Antheil's "ultramodern" period when he wanted to make as big a splash as possible in the post World War I music world. From the outset of his career in Europe, Antheil set out to be a pianist-composer. From his first recital in London in 1922 he concluded his concerts of Chopin, Debussy with his own ultra modern works. There were various reactions to Antheil's machine-like rhythms from admiration to riots.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 was written in Berlin in 1922 and was influenced by the music of Igor Stravinsky. The concerto is a mix of astringent rhythms and percussive effects mixed with more reflective passages. The orchestration is very effective and Antheil uses a xylophone, gong and includes jazzy elements that make the concerto quite an original work aside from his homage to Stravinsky.

The Piano Concerto No. 2 comes from 1926 and has a more lyrical approach than the earlier work. The concerto is a neoclassical homage to Bach, utilizing the keyboard music as inspiration. It is scored for a small orchestra and consists of three movements played together: overture, aria and toccata. The influence of Stravinsky is present but I also think of the French music of the period as well. There are almost too many ideas in the concerto that makes it a bit disorganized, as if Antheil just linked his melodies without care. Overall, the Second Concerto may not have the drive of the first but the music is cheerful with an abrupt ending when the music just stops.

The Jazz Symphony was written in 1924 but the version recorded here is from 1955 when Antheil expanded the orchestration. It was the composer's contribution to George Whiteman's "Second Experiment in Modern Music" in 1925. Rather than jazz, the symphony seems more influenced by Latin American melodies, a bit like the ballet Capital of the World.

There follows a selection of George Antheil's piano music nicely played by Markus Becker. The Jazz Sonata and Can-can are playful pieces that are not at all ultra modern. The Sonatina is likewise a work more rooted in traditional piano literature. Death of the machines is more experimental while the short Little Shimmy is a seductive and sexy piece written with his future wife Boski in mind, with whom he was living with in Paris.

The concertos are well-played by Markus Becker and he is ably supported by the NDR Radiophilharmonie under Eiji Oue. I liked having the two concerti together on one disc and the mix of piano music. The booklet has a lengthy biography of Antheil that I find wordy and in need of a more straightforward presentation of the music. This is a great disc for anyone interested in George Antheil's music. For an introduction to his music I would recommend the symphonies that are also available of the cpo label.
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on December 30, 2011
I enjoyed this music quite a bit. The two piano concertos are very good. In the first he was emulating Stravinsky to some extent but I still liked it. The second was more straight George Antheil, at least the Antheil of the 20s that composed Ballet Mécanique. It doesn't sound like this more famous work - it is much more organic - but you can still hear some connections.

The Jazz Symphony is also great. I hear a lot of Jazz influence on Antheil's music of the 20s but usually not as much as here. Though very different I think it can take its place with Rhapsody in Blue or La Création du monde (actually, if I have to say Milhaud I think it's closer to Le Baeuf sur le toit) in the pantheons of early Jazz influenced classical.

The rest of the CD is devoted to piano music. I wish there more orchestral music even if they had to put on Ballet Mécanique, which incorporates some of the piano music heard here. The music is good and played well, I just think more orchestral music would have fit in better.

Over all I liked this. Not my very favorite (thus 4 stars) but very good and recommended.
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on February 24, 2015
i really enjoy einsturzende neubautens first few albums and industrial worksites, but this....
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on November 3, 2006
Perhaps I expected too much, but I found the music lacking melodies and presented on the same level (no drama) . O.K. for getting to know the composer, but not for repeated listening. G. Koves
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