Piano Music - Conlon Nancarrow / George Antheil

Herbert Henck

CD18,90 out of print

Viewed collectively, Herbert Henck’s recordings for ECM add up to a portrait gallery of some of the most fiercely independent spirits in 20th century music. In this series of recordings, Henck has illuminated composers whose work is outside all the "schools". After Mompou, Mosolov, Barraqué, and Hans Otte, the resourceful German pianist now turns his attention to two maverick Americans – George Antheil and Conlon Nancarrow.

Featured Artists Recorded

August 1999, Festeburgkirche Frankfurt

Original Release Date


  • Three 2-part Studies
    (Conlon Nancarrow)
  • 1I. Presto01:08
  • 2II. Andantino02:02
  • 3III. Allegro00:48
  • 4Prelude (1935): Allegro molto
    (Conlon Nancarrow)
  • 5Blues (1935): Slow Blues Tempo
    (Conlon Nancarrow)
  • 6Sonatina For Radio (1929): Allegro moderato
    (George Antheil)
  • Second Sonata, "The Airplane" (1922)
    (George Antheil)
  • 7I. To Be Played As Fast As Possible02:35
  • 8II. Andante moderato02:17
  • 9Mechanisms (1922/23)
    (George Antheil)
  • La Femme 100 têtes after Max Ernst
    (George Antheil)
  • 10A Machine00:30
  • Sonatina "Death Of The Machines"
    (George Antheil)
  • 11I. Moderato00:22
  • 12II. Accelerando00:13
  • 13III. Accelerando00:18
  • 14IV. Accelerando00:33
  • 15Jazz Sonata (Sonata No. 4) (1922/23): as rapidly as it is possible to execute cleanly and with even touch and dynamics - like a player-piano
    (George Antheil)
  • Sonata Sauvage
    (George Antheil)
  • 16I. Allegro vivo02:51
  • 17II. Moderato03:54
  • 18III. Moderato / Xylophonic, Prestissimo00:49
  • 19(Little) Shimmy (1923)
    (George Antheil)
Klassik Heute, Empfehlung
Neue Musikzeitung, Tip
Herrlich unkonventionelle, freche, kühne Musik. Antheil mit scharfen Kanten, herben Brüchen, stilistischen Rundschlägen. Und der frühe Nancarrow lässt hören, warum seine Musik bald nicht mehr von menschlicher Hand bewältigbar war. Ein Grenzgang!
Reinhard Schulz, Neue Musikzeitung
Herbert Henck’s performances are wonderfully clear and precise; the recording is immaculate: five stars for both, without question.
Anthony Burton, BBC Music Magazine
As well as being a superb technician, the pianist Herbert Henck always puts together his discs with great thoughtfulness. This brilliantly executed programme of the renegade American composers Conlon Nancarrow and George Antheil may seem an unlikely juxtaposition, but it makes musical sense. ... The sources of Nancarrow’s inspirations are clear – the rhythmic energy and the syncopation come from jazz, while the clarity and the contrapuntal ingenuity stem from neoclassicism in general and Stravinsky in particular. Jazz and Stravinsky had also been the main inspirations of Antheil’s music more than a decade earlier, when this self-styled “bad boy of music” left the US (in 1922) to live in Europe for 11 years, touring as a pianist and scandalising his audiences with his own provocative compositions. At a recital in Paris in 1923, he played his Airplane Sonata, Sonata Sauvage and Mechanisms (all three included here by Henck, alongside the Jazz Sonata, and the Sonatina, of the same vintage, and the Sonatina for radio written six years later). ... The music is still immensely attractive, full of vigour and harmonic daring – some untethered harmonies anticipate the more abandoned moments of Messiaen, other insouciant tunes sound like close cousins of the music of the Parisian Les Six, and yet other works are entirely rhythmic. ... As far as Iknow, the two composers never met, but had they done so, they would have found they had a lot in common, as Henck so lucidly demonstrates.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian (Classical CD of the week)
All the music on this astonishingly bizarre CD was written between 1920 and 1940 by two composers whose combined output was remarkably eclectic. George Antheil (1900-59) – avant-garde composer, pianist extraordinaire, Esquire columnist, endocrinology expert and wartime cipher-encoding inventor – represents the first decade in question with the heady mélange that is his type of machine-influenced jazz. Conlon Nancarrow (1912-97) covers the latter with his music for player piano, executed with a mind-boggling accuracy by Herbert Henck that leaves the listener with glorious aftershock.
Tarik O’Regan, The Observer (Classical CD of the week)
Herbert Hencks eigensinnige Kunstreflexionen spiegeln sich wider in einem Klavierspiel von unbedingter Intensität und Klarheit. ... In den mechanistischen Klangwelten Nancarrows und Antheils bewegt sich der Ausnahmepianist mit atemberaubendem Können.
Peter Schlüer, Klassik heute
Wenn auch Conlon Nancarrow ab den 80er Jahren zu spätem, George Antheil als "bad boy of music" bereits in den 1920er Jahren zu Ruhm gelangte, handelt es sich bei den vorliegenden Stücken um kaum beachtete, weil von bekannteren überschattete, wenig gespielte oder vergessene Musik der beiden Amerikaner - Werke also, für die sich Herbert Henck dankenswerterweise schon seit längerem einsetzt. ... Henck gelingt in seiner Interpretation nicht nur die erforderliche, auch an dem Pianisten Antheil gerühmte Synthese von "Raserei und Präzision"; der perkussive, repetitive Klavierstil erscheint bei ihm auch nie kalt oder mechanisch. Sein Spiel ist stets vital-musikalisch, swingend oder fließend, voller dynamischer oder klang(farb)licher Valeurs, auch wenn Lautstärke-Bezeichnungen - wie in der Airplane-Sonata - fehlen, selbst bei einem Mechanism genannten Stück. Eine lohnende Aufnahme!
Monika Fürst-Heidtmann, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik

Viewed collectively, Herbert Henck's recordings for ECM add up to portrait gallery of some of the most fiercely independent spirits in 20th century music. In this series of recordings, Henck has illuminated composers whose work is outside all the "schools". So far, we've heard: the Spanish proto-minimalist Mompou, whose "voice of silence" was inspired by St John of the Cross; the Russian Mosolov who found poetry in the hammerings of the iron foundry; the French composer Barraqué, whose massively complex Piano Sonata has defied all but the most gifted contemporary interpreters; the German composer Hans Otte, whose "Das Buch der Klänge" proposed "a new consciousness of sounds". Now Henck turns his attention to two maverick Americans: George Antheil and Conlon Nancarrow. Though both can be held up as 'ahead of their time' and both did their most creative work outside America, their personal fates were quite different. Antheil enjoyed a burst of brief celebrity as the self-styled "Bad Boy of Music" in Paris of the 1920s and, after a disastrous New York debut in 1927 was regarded with suspicion by critics thereafter, a "defection" to the movies not helping his cause at all. (In the last decade, George Antheil's music has been reassessed and his critical reputation at least rehabilitated). Conlon Nancarrow, on the other hand, stubbornly followed his muse for 40 years in obscurity in Mexico, only beginning to gain any kind of recognition in his sixties.

Nancarrow (1912-1997) was born in Texarkana, Arkansas. Jazz and Brahms and Beethoven were his earliest inspirations. Trumpet was his first instrument and he played in his home town's brass band. In the 1930s, he studied privately with Walter Piston, Nicolas Slonimsky and Roger Sessions in Boston, was bowled over by exposure to Bartók and Stravinsky, listened avidly (at the urging of Henry Cowell) to music of India and Africa, and subsidized his studies by playing in jazz clubs and German beer halls. Nancarrow travelled to Spain in 1937 to fight against Franco's fascists, and also joined the communist party. On his return to the USA, his left wing radicalism drew the attention of governmental agencies. Nancarrow's application for a new passport was turned down in 1940. He decamped to Mexico City which was to be his home base for the next 57 years. There he began his lonely quest to realise his compositions by means of mechanical performance, painstakingly punching holes into pianola roles. The player piano became his sole musical outlet. When his more than 50 player piano studies were heard more widely in the late 1970s, many musicians were stunned by their beauty and complexity. György Ligeti was prompted to remark that "Nancarrow's music is the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives...something great and important for all music history. His music is so utterly original, perfectly constructed but at the same time emotional."

However, both before and after his long absorption in mechanical music, Nancarrow wrote for human performers. The Prelude and Blues and the Three 2-part Studies that Herbert Henck plays here are amongst Nancarrow's earliest published works. They indicate, in their formidable challenge to performers, the direction that his subsequent "impossible music" would take. Enormous rhythmic demands are placed upon the performer who must also have an understanding of "jazz" dynamics, barrelhouse syncopation and Stravinskyian/Bartokian linearity. In the 1930s, interpreters were not equal to the challenge. Henck is one of very few pianists able to negotiate the material today, and he brings to it sensibilities that have been honed by his own work as an improviser as well a rigorous commitment to the interpretation of contemporary music.

George Antheil was born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1900. A childhood of the century, he was a modernist by temperament. Combative and not given to false modesty, he was convinced, by the age of 20, that his achievements would eclipse those of his contemporaries. He was able, at least in his young years, to transmit this conviction to others, and early supporters included Virgil Thomson (who hailed Antheil as "the first composer of our generation"), Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger, Jean Cocteau, James Joyce and Ezra Pound (who wrote a book about him, "Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony"). Pound, on several occasions, and with his usual flair for hyperbole, insisted that George Antheil was a superior musician to Stravinsky.

By all accounts a riveting performer of his own works, the tiny Antheil (he was barely five foot tall) was possessed of enormous energy, and his practise sessions - up to 20 hours at a stretch, and with fish bowls at each side of the piano stool into which to plunge swollen and bloody hands - were legendary.

For the Paris-based Pound, Antheil's compositions swept away the "hysterical mush" of French impressionism. The young American "demanded short hard bits of rhythm hammered down, worn down so that they were indestructible and unbendable". Against "atmosphere" and for strong lines and unsentimental, sculpted form, he was, the poet-critic claimed, the harbinger of a new movement in music.

Herbert Henck: "Again and again, Antheil felt drawn to machines, and several of his works revolve around this modern, future-oriented experience. 'Music and machines' may have been as firm a component of the 20s as serial techniques, Neo-Classicism, politicised, propagandistic music or the youth movement, but Antheil was the composer with the most radical approach, the one who surpassed all the rest."

New York critics felt differently when Antheil's "Ballet Mecanique" was premiered in Carnegie Hall. It was an ambitious presentation, complete with real airplane propellor, ten pianos, a siren and a large wind-machine which, positioned unfortunately, blew hats off ladies' heads. An elderly critic on the balcony tied his white handkerchief to his walking stick and waved it in a gesture of surrender. Where Antheil's performances in France had often provoked riots, New York responded with laughter and jeers.

In Europe, however, he continued to enjoy the support of great artists. Antheil collaborated with Yeats and Joyce and Cocteau, and wrote a detective novel which TS Eliot accepted for Faber & Faber. Had World War II not intervened he might never have returned to live in his homeland.

Opportunities for performance of Antheil's work evaporated in the post-war period. His prgamatic embracing of Hollywood in the 1940s estranged old allies. Virgil Thomson sneered that "the Bad Boy of Music" had "grown up to be a good boy". Those who were close to Antheil in this period, such as novelist/journalist/screenwriter Ben Hecht, had another tale to tell:

"Music poured out of Antheil sixteen hours a day. He did nothing but write music and play it on the piano, which he made sound like a calliope in a circus parade. Driving an automobile, flying the Atlantic, watching a ballgame or drinking himself pie-eyed, George Antheil kept on writing music, carrying it in his head until he could get to paper and ink pot."In 1963, four years after Antheil's death, the astute Hecht noted that "there is no Antheil boom as yet. But there's one tuning up. It will take a few more years for Antheil to win the laurels due him. This is because the Antheil fame was a bit spotty when he died. The Art World was miffed at Georgie. He had deserted to the movies. The rule is - you cater to the masses or you kowtow to the elite; you can't have it both ways. But the rule is a fickle one, as are most of the edicts of snobbery. The fact that Antheil made a fair living writing movie music will be forgiven him soon."