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Symphonies 1 & 6; Archipelago
Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt/Hugh Wolff
CPO 999 604-2 [62.35]
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Familiar with some of George Antheil's piano music, and the Ballet Mechanique, this CD has proved a surprise pleasure. The first symphony (1923) has a young man (he was born in 1900, died saddened 1959) flexing his compositional muscles with a mish-mash of influences, juxtaposed in a collage technique with brazen confidence, bringing to mind Ives, Stravinsky and many others. It is music about music and I enjoyed it greatly.

The sixth symphony (1948) has a very strong Shostakovich/Prokofiev presence, with no attempt to disguise it, and something of the American in Paris in its finale.

Archipelago (1935) celebrates Cuban-Caribbean rumba rhythm and would make a good concert alternative to Copland's popular El Salon Mexico, which has a similarly refreshing abandon.

If you question whether Antheil deserves to be taken seriously (his Bad Boy tag has stuck firmly) try the slow movement of No 6; an extremely beautiful Larghetto, Prokfievian obviously, but good music which Prokofiev himself might have been proud to have conceived and orchestrated so movingly. On this showing the larger works of Antheil are unfairly neglected, fully deserving discovery or rediscovery.

Excellent recording and orchestral playing under my namesake, and an uncommonly interesting, well written and well translated essay which provides a mini-biography (and urges you to read Antheil's own autobiography), a sorting out of the complex chronology and scattered scores, and notes about the works themselves.


Peter Grahame Woolf

and Marc Bridle adds:

George Antheil is one of the least well known of American composers - and one of the more controversial. Born in 1900, his heritage is predominantly a European one, something which Antheil used to promote his reputation as an enfant terrible of early twentieth century music. Counted amongst his friends in his Paris and Berlin years were luminaries (and revolutionary ones at that) such as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Picasso, Dali and Stravinsky.

Antheil considered himself a revolutionary composer and his concerts throughout Europe regularly caused riots. The rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany lead to his return to the United States where, bizarrely, his reputation never really gathered ground. He died before his sixtieth birthday, and was more widely known as a television and film composer at the time of his death rather than as a serious classical composer.

Both musically and technically he was an innovator. If Varése is the name we often think of as a revolutionary composer at this time, Antheil does not lie far behind him. His most famous work is not a symphony, but a ballet - Mécanique (1925). A notorious work, it virtually destroyed his reputation when it appeared in the US. It is a highly rhythmic, brutal work that melts atonalism with industrial sounds and jazz. Technically it is a formidable work - and is rarely performed even today - with a strongly percussive elementalism. Pianolos, xylophones, electric bells, sirens and tam-tams all make an appearance. It exists in different versions, each lasting between 15 and 30 minutes. The pianola and percussion version - amazingly - only received its premiere performance in 1999 when the Ensemble Modern attempted to play it. There are only two recordings of the piece that I know of (I would be grateful if someone could confirm this for me) and both are on extremely obscure US labels.

The Antheil discography is very short anyway, but hopefully these CPO performances of the First and Sixth symphonies will comprise part of a developing cycle. The first symphony, Zingareska, harmonises bits of Bruckner, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky - without really being any of them. The orchestration is generally dense, but there are already new tricks up Antheil's sleeve such as the second movement's plucked strings being attacked by the bow as they are still vibrating. The ending of the fourth movement is purely derivative: it is fundamentally the final chord that ends the Rite of Spring. The Sixth symphony, After Delacroix, was written almost twenty years later and owes a clear debt to Prokofiev and Stravinsky. Thematically it is rich, with the first movement striking a close resemblance to battle music, and the second a mournful lament which is close in style to Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. The ending is joyous and up beat.

Hugh Wolff's performances could not be more persuasive. The playing, particularly in the Sixth, has an urgency and passion that is hard to resist. The recording is full bodied and makes much of the inner details which are so important to the development of these works. A fascinating disc of unfamiliar music that should be better known.


Marc Bridle







Peter Grahame Woolf

Marc Bridle

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