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George Antheil, Without All the Bells and Whistles

Friday, February 11, 2005; Page C03

We don't often get to hear the music of George Antheil. The American experimentalist composer, who died in 1959, provoked sharp controversy during his prime in the 1920s, creating works with then-unorthodox instrumental forces such as a piece for two grand pianos, amplified pianola, a siren, three airplane propellers and more. The mechanistic rhythmic pulse of his early music also pervades his much later String Quartet No. 3 (1948), which the Fine Arts Quartet played at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Tuesday. The group captured the throbbing undercurrent of the opening Allegro, bringing Antheil's jarring contrast to a head with sweetly invoked Coplandesque tunefulness. The quartet's fresh, buoyant approach to Antheil's propulsive drive peaked with the rough-hewed textures of the finale.

For the first Allegro of Beethoven's early String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 5, the players emphasized its lyrical aspects rather nicely, but seemed to miss its essential rhetorical cast; one likewise missed its underlying ironic whimsy and the barely contained tension that permeates the Andante. Throughout the piece, the ensemble sometimes sounded a little shaky.

Schumann's Piano Quintet, Op. 44, fared better. A replacement for an ailing Sara Wolfensohn, pianist Joseph Kalichstein led the quartet in summoning all the Olympian bluster and passion the outer movements call for. In the martial second movement, the musicians mingled exalted beauty with sobering tragedy.

-- Cecelia Porter

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