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George ANTHEIL (1900-1959) Concert Music: Symphony No. 4 ('1942'); Symphony No. 6  McKonkey's Ferry (Washington at Trenton); A Concert Overture  Theodore Kuchar conducts the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. NAXOS 8.559033 [67:43]

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George Antheil is remembered by film music enthusiasts for his scores for such films as The Plainsman (1938); Spectre of the Rose (1946); Knock on any Door (1949); In a Lonely Place (1950); and The Pride and the Passion (1957). He is also famous, or infamous, as the composer of the 1925 Ballet Mécanique composed for an orchestra consisting of percussion instruments, player pianos, electric buzzers, and even an airplane propeller.

George Antheil was born in Trenton, New Jersey. He studied for a while with Ernest Bloch (his studies ended prematurely when his cash ran out) before moving to Paris where he entered a coterie that included James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Man Ray, Satie, Picasso and many others. His Ballet Mécanique caused one of those Parisian riots that we hear about so often, but it preluded Antheil's withdrawal from things avante garde in favour of more appealing and lucrative work in the musical-theatre and film music communities back home in New York.

In 1940 he became a war correspondent (at other times he had been employed as a lonely-hearts columnist and wrote articles on endocrinology). His Symphony No. 4 was written during this period. Of it he commented that it was - "Written…during a period when the entire future of the world hung in the balance, its first movement undoubtedly reflects my tense and troubled state of mind while writing it: I had no actual program in mind; but every day, I was watching the news, from Stalingrad, from Africa, from the Pacific…the second movement is tragic - news of Lidice and the horrors of Poland had just come in - while the third; the Scherzo is more like a brutal joke of war. The fourth, written after the turn of the tide at Stalingrad and our landings in Morocco, heralds victory.

The first movement is tense and troubled indeed, a powerful astringent and gritty statement heightened by many changes of mood and tempo. At times its many complex strands scream out as a brutal cacophony of war. The second movement has a fearful, nervous lyricism and I was reminded very much in places (as I was to a lesser degree in the opening movement) of the film music of Bernard Herrmann. I wonder if he knew this symphony? This second movement ends on a chill and harrowing note. The Scherzo is cold mechanical and devilish; I was reminded of Vaughan Williams's 4th and 6th symphonies although the overall similarity in this symphony leans more towards Shostakovich and Prokofiev. As Joshua Creek says in his erudite booklet notes, of the closing Allegro non troppo, 'Antheil's work as a film score composer is nowhere more evident than in the fourth movement. One can practically envision it as a soundtrack to a newsreel. Grim march rhythms are juxtaposed with triumphant tuttis. Dozens of tempo changes serve to amplify the episodic effect...'

Antheil's 6th Symphony (premiered in February 1948), was inspired by Eugène Delacroix's painting, 'Liberty Leading the People' (see the cover design of this CD). This is another powerful symphony. A quirky allusion to 'The Battle Cry of Freedom', in the flutes and upper woodwinds, is heard early in the brusque and abrasive first movement, before a rather Prokofievian moto perpetuo theme in scurrying eighth notes is introduced. The second movement is a sombre reflective slow waltz that is rather Satie-like while the Trio sounds vaguely Mahleresque. The concluding, scampering rondo is at least a bit more cheerful and was described by Antheil as '…the triumph of joy and optimism over despair.' Post war blues? But at least there is some jazz and syncopation here to liven things a bit.

Antheil's Concert Overture, McKonkey's Ferry (1948) was inspired by the image of George Washington's crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Night 1776. Again the work's theme is victory and freedom. The music is very evocative of the troops and gun carriages crossing the river. There are telling little vignettes - perhaps a boy soldier proudly playing his piccolo, for instance. But besides the swagger and bravado there is a note or two of anxiety expressed by the strings, and brief tender passages as though the troops might be thinking of home.

Not an easy album for there is much very red meat here, but this is a rewarding experience for the adventurous music lover and the performances are first rate.


Ian Lace


Ian Lace

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