“Blues” = GERSHWIN (arr. Heifetz): Porgy and Bess Suite; WAYNE MARSHALL: Improvisation; GEORGE ANTHEIL: Sonata No. 2 for Violin with Accompaniment of Piano and Drum; DEBUSSY (arr. Heifetz): Golliwogg’s Cakewalk; SCOTT JOPLIN (arr. Perlman): Elite Syncopations; Ragtime Dance; COPLAND: Nocturne; Ukulele Serenade; RAVEL: Blues (second movement of Violin Sonata); GERSHWIN (arr. Heifetz): Three Preludes – Matthew Trusler, violin/ Wayne Marshall, piano – Orchid Classics ORC 100002, 58:58 ***1/2:
Orchid Classics is the brainchild of violinist Matthew Trusler, founded in 2005 “with the goal of producing artist-focused recordings of the highest quality and artistic interest.” Certainly, it’s no homegrown product. The current CD features an attractive program, committed performances, and a very professional sound recording. Perhaps the best thing about it is the program, which brings together breezier staples of the violinist’s repertoire and a welcome rarity, the wild and crazy Violin Sonata No. 2 of George Antheil.
Born to German immigrants living in Trenton, Georg Carl Johann Antheil (1900-1959) studied piano and composition in the US and in Berlin before landing in Paris, where he hung out with and impressed folks like James Joyce and Ezra Pound. He established himself as the self-styled Bad Boy of Music; riots broke out at the concerts where he premiered his own piano compositions. However, Antheil’s works from the 20s (such as the notorious Ballet Mécanique, with its scoring for player pianos, siren, and three airplane propellers) don’t shock anymore. Instead, they amuse and entertain with their studied endeavor to go over the top.
The Violin Sonata manages to do a bit more than that. It isn’t simply a bid to outdo Stravinsky and Varèse in volume and rhythmic freedom. Along with crazed atonal scampering up and down the fingerboard and keyboard come oases of calm tonality, featuring blues riffs and quotations from such immortal classics as “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree” and “Oh, the Girls in France Do the Hootchie-Kootchie Dance.” (At least that’s the title I know the song by; an Internet check turns up more R-rated versions.) At the end of the piece, in true bad-boy fashion, Antheil instructs the pianist to abandon the keyboard for a brief stint on the bass drum. This appealing essay in Ives-style popular reference was, of course, written without benefit of familiarity with Ives’ music; Charles Ives was a virtual unknown when Antheil’s Violin Sonata was composed.
Some of the other works on the program stretch the “Blues” appellation a bit. Joplin and Debussy dabbled in ragtime, that forerunner of jazz and blues. And some critics sniff that whatever Gershwin thought he was writing, it was not bona fide jazz or blues. As an innocent when it comes to such matters, I will demur and simply say that Three Preludes sounds pretty jazzy-bluesy to me, and the team of Trusler and Marshall turn in one of their best performances here.
I’m not a great fan of excerpting music from larger scores, but in a program such as this, it does make sense to cherry-pick the movement that Ravel simply titled “Blues” from his Violin Sonata. Again, this is a fine performance. And while it isn’t the fault of Messieurs Trusler and Marshall, Heifetz’s arrangement of “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk” tends to straighten out the curves and dull the edges of Debussy’s little piano piece. Less defensible is the fact that Heifetz (RCA) and Perlman (EMI) serve the interests of their arrangements better than does Trusler, whose tone is somewhat thin and wiry by comparison. Also, Trusler and Marshall don’t quite swing enough in Gershwin’s Porgy or in the Joplin, and of course it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
Still, there is much to enjoy here, including, as I say, a fine recording made in a pleasantly resonant sound that maybe does more favors to the violin’s tone than to the piano’s but is attractive nonetheless.