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George ANTHEIL (1900-1959)
McConkey's Ferry (Washington at Trenton): A Concert Overture (1948)
Symphony no 4 ('1942') (1944)
Symphony no 6 (1948)
National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar
Recorded at the Grand Concert Hall of the National Radio Company of Ukraine, 18-22 December 1998
NAXOS 8.559033 [67:43]
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George Antheil was one of twentieth century music's most unusual characters. Born in New Jersey in 1900, he moved to Paris in the 1920s to study with, amongst others, Nadia Boulanger, and to join the côterie of avant-garde artists and writers already established there. He set out to become the enfant terrible of music (later, his autobiography, published in 1945, was to be called Bad Boy of Music). This phase of his career reached its climax in 1927 with the sensational American première of his Ballet Mécanique, scored for, inter alia, 16 pianos, pianola, eight xylophones, doorbells, car-horns, anvils and aeroplane propeller: its hostile reception persuaded the composer to tread more orthodox paths (the work was revived in 1953, but by then was seen as no more than a rather harmless curiosity).

In due course Antheil returned to the USA and settled in Hollywood, writing a number of film scores and enjoying considerable success as a 'serious' composer in works (such as the three on this disc) of a markedly 'populist' character. Meanwhile, he was busily pursuing a bizarre combination of other interests. His writings ranged from detective novels to a treatise on the endocrinology of criminals; he also wrote a widely syndicated newspaper agony column. During World War II he worked as a war correspondent, which role was to provide the inspiration for his Fourth Symphony. With the film actress Hedy Lamarr, he invented a torpedo device, for which they actually filed a patent: the invention related to ' . . . a secret communication system involving the use of carrier waves of different frequencies, especially useful in the remote control of dirigible craft, such as torpedoes'. (I owe this information to the incomparable Nicolas Slonimsky, who drily adds: 'It is not known whether the Antheil-Lamarr device was ever used in naval warfare'.)

In the years leading up to his death in 1959, Antheil's music was widely performed in the USA - a 1947 survey listed him as one of the most performed American composers - but, as the sleeve-note points out, 'after his death his music was swiftly forgotten'. Hearing this music for the first time I have to confess that I'm puzzled by this neglect. True, there is nothing particularly original in the way he deploys a conservative tonal language, and much of the music is derivative: both the symphonies on this disc owe a great deal to Shostakovich (indeed, the notorious first movement theme from Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony hovers as a brooding presence throughout Antheil's Fourth); the slow movement of the Sixth could have been written by Satie; and folksy stuff (à la Copland) also figures largely. Nevertheless, the music is tuneful, full of energy and drive, widely contrasted in moods and brilliantly orchestrated; Antheil also reveals a sure grasp of structure and form (as in the fugal section of the Fourth Symphony's third movement).

I enjoyed McConkey's Ferry (a self-declared 'patriotic' piece) rather less than the symphonies, but that is neither here nor there. The recording is bright and well-balanced and the performance excellent. If you enjoy discovering previously unknown late-romantic symphonies, then this is a disc worth sampling.

 Adrian Smith

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