Antheil’s Violin Sonatas in a New Recording

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ANTHEIL: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-4 / Alessandro Fagiuoli, vln; Alessia Toffanin, pno / AVI 8553239

George Antheil’s violin sonatas are scarcely at the top of anyone’s favorites list; in fact, they are very rarely performed and almost as rarely recorded, thus I was delighted to get the chance to hear this brand-new take on them.

It’s interesting to compare these performances to the ones by violinist Mark Fewer and pianist John Novacek on Azica. Although Fewer and Novacek play the sonatas at a quicker pace, which I like, their phrasing and rhythmic approach is all wrong. They tend to “smooth out” Antheil’s choppy, Art Deco rhythms, trying desperately to make the music fit into a more conventional Americana feel (sort of like country or bluegrass fiddling), which is completely foreign to Antheil’s style. I much prefer the way Fagiuoli and especially Toffanin, whose incisive staccato touch and driving rhythms propel the music properly, play Antheil’s rhythms in the correct style.

Particularly in the first three sonatas, the music is clearly based in the same aesthetic as the composer’s famous (or notorious) Ballet Mécanique, with its stiffish, mechanical and ragtime rhythms, often in a perpetual motion using repeated chords in a style that, decades later, would be the basis of minimalism. And, even though I am convinced that Fagiuoli and Toffanin take these sonatas too slowly, it’s quite easy with an inexpensive audio editor to speed them up by about 8%, which makes them sound just right.

Of course, there’s much more to this music than just the interesting rhythm. Antheil was very much up on the use of modern harmony, inspired in part y Stravinsky, and had a good, if offbeat, sense of musical structure. His music develops in an interesting way, quirky but musically sound, using serrated figures for both the violin and piano, whole tone scales, chromatic movement (particularly in the later fourth sonata from 1947-48) and a feeling that the music is definitely going somewhere even if you can’t figure out exactly where.

This is, in toto, a fascinating and compelling CD, recommended to Antheil fans with the caveats noted above.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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