Duo Odéon and the Specter of George Antheil

DSL-92222 Album Cover

ANTHEIL: Sonatine for Violin & Piano. Concerto for Violin & Orchestra (arr. Duo Odéon). Valses from Specter of the Rose (arr. Gebauer) / Duo Odéon: Hannah Leland, vln; Aimee Fincher, pno / Sono Luminus DSL-92222

This is a disc of late period Antheil, specifically 1945-47, a good 20 years removed from his wildest and most experimental period when he was the enfant terrible of Paris and New York. That being said, late Antheil was still a very good composer, perhaps more influenced by Stravinsky than previously, and it shows in the superb structure of these works, written for violinist Werner Gebauer, concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The Valses are, in fact, a world premiere recording, since the music was previously unpublished and sent to Duo Odéon by Gebauer’s son, Marc.

The Sonatine vacillates between tonal and atonal passages with impunity, and Duo Odéon’s familiarity with the earlier, edgier Antheil shows in the extreme intensity of their performance. Violinist Hannah Leland plays with an exceptionally bright tone, using a very fast vibrato of the sort that Toscanini would have adored. (Interestingly, Toscanini and Bruno Walter vouched for Gebauer personally so that he could emigrate to the U.S. from Germany.) The slow middle movement could have used a bit more of a full tone in spots, but I can’t complain. The last movement, fast and playful, skitters through several quick key changes, and sounds the most Stravinskian of the three, although with a nod to Fritz Kreisler’s Indian Lament in its melodic contour. There’s also a wild accelerando at the end.

Duo Odéon prepared this reduction of the 1946 Violin Concerto from the handwritten score, “taking into account the recording of Gebauer’s premiere performance under Antal Doráti.” This performance exists on YouTube in particularly poor, scrappy sound, but as far as I can tell it’s the only recording of this work in the full orchestral version. I scoured the internet looking for another version but came up empty, so this, too, may indeed be a world premiere recording. Listening through the awful radio sound, however, Gebauer’s tone seems to have been very similar to that of Leland, which makes sense, and he played with equal intensity (although the radio recording seems to be truncated). Why don’t modern American violinists, or foreign ones either, play this work? Because, in musicians’ parlance, it’s a bitch. Extraordinarily difficult, it demands far more of the soloist than even the Berg concerto, and is even more confusing to the untrained ear in its dissonances, constant key changes and amorphous melodic content. It should also be pointed out that either Gebauer or Doráti made substantial cuts to the score during rehearsals, and perhaps because he was pressed for time, the violinist also altered several passages, thus this is indeed a valuable document of the full score as Antheil conceived it (but did not live to hear). Although pianist Aimee Fincher is a brilliant foil for Leland, and I am not underestimating her contribution, I wish they had been able to get an orchestra to give this work the full treatment. Hopefully, this outstanding recording will spur some other violinist to do so.

Gebauer and Antheil

Gebauer and Antheil

Despite its aural and technical difficulties, the music is sprightly and energetic. In some ways it harks back to Antheil’s earlier style, at the end of the first movement introducing staccato, pounding rhythms in the manner of his Ballet Mécanique. The second movement is the most conventionally melodic, and could easily appeal to modern audiences…at least, until the tempo increases and the music again becomes chromatic in tonality. The third movement, by contrast, is clearly the quirkiest and most extreme in both tempi and themes, jumping around as only Antheil could do. A “Presto capriccioso,” indeed, calling for numerous double-stops at one point that almost sound as if the music is stuttering along. The finale has an almost Latin sort of rhythm.

The Valses from Specter of the Rose are an arrangement of Antheil’s 1947 film score of the same name. They are very brief (a total of only 6:26) and surprisingly lyrical for the oft-shocking Antheil, despite his patented key changes. Yet the third and last of them is a most aggressive waltz, with some of his earlier edginess in full display, demanding some skittering bowing effects from the violinist. Fincher is all over this, too, playing with drive and energy, thus they make a nice coda to this extraordinary recording. If you enjoy Antheil’s music at all, this is a must-have for your collection.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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