Markus Becker / Eiji Oue

George Antheil: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3; a Jazz Symphony; Jazz Sonata

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Aside from his legendary Ballet mécanique, which still gets played as a kind of souvenir of the madcap 1920s, George Antheil's concert music has mostly fallen into obscurity. In spite of his reputation as an enfant terrible who hobnobbed with the leading lights of the avant-garde, his works attract less attention than the details of his life. Yet this state of affairs might be reversed if this delightful release from CPO gets proper distribution, for the pieces presented here are worth hearing in their own right, in addition to whatever biographical interest they may hold. The Piano Concerto No. 1 (1922) has a few obvious touches of Bartók and Debussy, and more than a little borrowing from Stravinsky's Petrouchka, but in spite of these derivative aspects, it is an imaginative composition with lively repartee between the pianist and the orchestra and quicksilver changes of mood. Somewhat more independently developed, consistent in material, and mature in style, the Piano Concerto No. 2 (1949-1950) is almost as entertaining as its predecessor, though it is tinged with a melancholy not found in Antheil's brash, youthful works. A Jazz Symphony (1925, rev. 1955) smacks of Ballet mécanique's chaos and irreverence, and its surrealistic jumble of dance tunes and rapid metrical changes may suggest to some ears a nightmarish montage by a Gershwin or a Milhaud. The 2004 performances by pianist Markus Becker and the NDR Orchestra, conducted by Eiji Oue, are bright and vibrantly colorful, and the program is enhanced with five short encores for piano solo, which Becker delivers with charm and wit. CPO's sound is excellent, and the package on the whole is attractive, but the liner notes are rambling and at times unintelligible.

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