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Piano Pictures: Satie Sports & Divertissements / Antheil La Femme 100
Brilliant and imaginative pairing of two brilliant and imagi
Discophage | France | 03/21/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The pairing of Satie's 14-minute « Sports & Divertissements » (« Sports & Entertainment ») and Antheil's 39-minute "La Femme 100 têtes" is a brilliant idea. As Antheil himself reminisces 22 years after the facts in his outlandish autobiography "Bad Boy of Music", Satie, a composer he held in high esteem and then "a high and mighty potentate in the decisions of musical France", had been present at Antheil's first and riotous concert of his own works given in Paris, in October 1923 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées (famous for another riot-stirring Premiere 10 years earlier, Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps"). At the riot's climax, Antheil had even "heard Satie's shrill voice saying, "Quel precision! Quel precision! [the faulty French grammar is Antheil's] Bravo! Bravo!" and he kept clapping his little gloved hands." "From this moment", he goes on, "I knew that, for a time at least, I would be the new darling ig Paris. I was notorious in Paris, therefore famous." Antheil was then 23 years-old.
So Satie was influential in the making of Antheil's career - but the links between Satie's "Sports & Divertissements" and Antheil's "La femme 100 têtes" are more than just this anecdotal encounter. The two cycles originate in promptings that are both picturesque and literary: in Satie, a series of 20 drawings by the illustrator and caricaturist Charles Martin, from which the composer derived small, nonsensical descriptions of the activities involved, written down in the score over the relevant musical passages - the booklet nicely reproduces the page for "Picknick", and gives the texts for all the pieces, with unfortunate typos both in French and English, resulting in a very Satie-like kind of humor, as when "it's my heard that is swinging like this" - my head? No, my heart. Antheil's composition is an uncompleted attempt (only 44 out of the projected 100 pieces were composed) to illustrate musically Max Ernst's book of surrealist pictures bearing the same title - often mistakenly translated in English as "The Woman with a Hundred Heads", whereas its literal meaning in French as in English would be a cryptic "The Woman One Hundred Heads". As all the commentators indicate, it also means, thanks to a phonetic play on words, "The Woman without a head" ("La femme sans tête"), but also (which I've never seen indicated) "The Woman stubbornly persists" ("La femme s'entête").
Another musical similarity between both cycles is that, as the liner notes appropriately point out, their component pieces are always short and they are built, like a child's castle, by placing side by side, in apparently random choice, small blocks of characteristic rhythmic and melodic cells, with hardly any motivic development in the classical sense. Satie displays his usual wry, terse and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor (I am astonished at how much of Poulenc's compositional style is already contained in embryo in this Satie) and his lean textures ("Tango" verges on nothingness). But lest you think Satie can compose only skeletons of music, just try the evocative ripples of water in "Yachting", the gushes of wind in "Ocean bathing" and the scurrying notes of "Racing". The music is always wonderfully evocative. Likewise with Antheil's cycle. It dates from 1932-33, way into the composer's "neo-classic" period, and the music isn't has uniformly pounding as his sonatas from the early twenties, but nonetheless the pounding of those earlier pieces is there aplenty. The pieces are short (the longest is 2:18, the shortest zips through at 0:10), the moods varied (with indications that range from "Sad", "Toughtfully" and "Nostalgic (Twisted slowly)" to "Furioso", "Electrical", "Bawdy Ferocious Tempo") but the mechanistic pyrotechnics are still much in evidence, tempered in some pieces by a more poetic and dreamy mood. Other composers fugitively come to mind - Scriabin's "Poems" and related piano composition, Prokofiev (the Sonatas and the "Visions fugitives"), Shostakovich (Sonatas, Aphorisms Op. 12, Preludes op. 36) and even Schoenberg's opus 11 or Webern (as in the rarified textures of Nr 13 "Nostalgic (Twisted slowly)") - but Antheil's style is entirely personal, and wondefully imaginative.
"La Femme 100 têtes" can be found in other versions, but some pianists (as Marthanne Verbit on Albany or Daniele Lombardi on Nuova Era: see my reviews of George Antheil, Bad Boy of Music and Ornstein, Antheil and Lourie) chose only a selection from the 44, possibly to avoid an impression of monotony. I find it unfortunate, as the obsessive repetitiveness of Antheil's cycle (which I do not find monotonous, but others may feel otherwise) is an integral feature of its style. There is another complete recording by the Japanese pianist Hideki Nagano on Pianovox (Antheil: Jazz Sonata, Sonatina, La Femme 100 Tetes), but the disc is disappointingly short (40:38) and the reading is flawed. So Koehlen very much has the field for himself - which is just fine, as a comparative survey shows that, despite his tendency to excessively rush a few of the preludes and hence blur the details, his interpretation is most of the times the best of the lot. With a total time of 53:05, another filler might have been added, but the interest of the program very much offsets the timing's stinginess.