The more eagle-eyed amongst you will spot, on perusing the CD case, that the recording venue happens to be the very town, Trenton New Jersey, where George Antheil was born on July 8th 1900. What a happy coincidence!
Antheil is describe in various books as 'The Bad Boy of Music' and that is how the CD booklet describes him and also how he describes himself in his amazingly entertaining autobiography written in 1945.
His move to Paris in 1923 as part of a European tour started it all off. But, before I move into that, let me assume that you know nothing of Antheil's work and need to be lowered gently into it. Well, this CD is the best starting point. CPO have recently set about recording all of the composer's six symphonies, but these are a little difficult to grasp at first, so start here with the Serenade for Strings. This was composed in 1948 at about the time of the 5th and 6th Symphonies. It is the most American of the works here, written when he had settled back into American life in Hollywood. It is vaguely modal, particularly movement 3 and has a tuneful outdoor air about it as if it is using real American folk melodies. The finale even has a touch of Shostakovitch at the barn dance about it. It is the latest piece on the CD and is the most conservative. Why?
The main work on the disc is the infamous 'Ballet Mechanique' of 1923. Paris was not, and is not, I can say from experience, immune to riots. This young American caused one on October 4th of that year with this ballet. Punches were thrown, abuse hurled and I suspect, as with 'Le Sacre', the music was never properly heard. Perhaps the French were not too fond of the orchestral layout of the work,- sixteen synchronised pianos, xylophones, drums and percussion, but on this recording it is heard in an even more bizarre arrangement of 1953 for aeroplane propellers, small and large gong, cymbal, woodblock, snare drum, tambourine, a small and a large electric bell, tenor drum, bass drum, two xylophones and just four pianos. Antheil described this as " the fourth dimension in music" but it was also an artistic dead end.
It is virile, anarchic, exciting and wildly energetic, in fact it is young man's music, but at the end of it I must say that Stravinsky is not far away, - the Stravinsky of 'Les Noces' or of the Concerto for Piano and Wind. Athletic, percussive, rather minimalist, lithe, I could go on; you probably get the picture, certainly dissonant and full of reckless noises. Once you have heard it, the remaining pieces will seem so very different. And yet, not entirely so, Stravinsky lies behind them too. This is not too surpris really as Stravinsky was all the rage in the Paris of the '20s and '30s.
The 'Symphony for Five instruments' written in 1924 is definitely a first cousin to Stravinsky's 'Symphonies of Wind Instruments' of 1920 and thereby is its problem. It is difficult to warm to it at first. It has all the weaknesses of Stravinsky's neo-classicism and none of the good things. The effect can be unrelenting in the outer movements although Stravinskian high-spirits make a good ending. The slow movement however is as long as the other two put together and it is moving, nostalgic and formally clear.
If Parisian audiences fell out with Antheil in the late '20s easily tiring of the style as it was, in the '40s Americans 'fell in' with him, so to speak. What they saw in the 'Concert for Chamber Orchestra' (1932) I can't say. The extensive and informative booklet notes by Joshua Cheek do not tell us except that it was commissioned by 'The League of Composers.' It is a little severe and reminiscent of Stravinsky's Octet for Winds (1922). What is also Stravinskian are the sudden and short-lived changes of tempo, the constantly changing instrumentation with little time for reflection and a certain element of the circus. Yet there is also something entirely new and original which I can't quite put my finger on. I'm not sure if I really enjoyed this piece but it did impress more with each hearing.
And who better to play this music than a young and enthusiastic group from George Antheil's homeland, the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra conducted by Daniel Spalding who founded the ensemble in 1991. This is their first disc for Naxos and will not be their last. They are indeed a group of virtuosi with a tremendous sense of ensemble and rapport. Spalding is a percussionist and a composer and has an ideal profile for a disc of this kind. Please let us have more from them.
Terry Barfoot has also listened to this recording
Among the many enterprising projects to have developed under the Naxos banner is the 'American Classics' series. This repertoire is well worth exploring: behind the popularity of popular song and jazz there lurks an art music which is marvellously rich and rewarding.
This disc was recorded in Trenton, New Jersey, the small town where Antheil was born in 1900. He achieved fame, if not notoriety in the mid-1920s with the Ballet Mécanique, which was written in Paris, the city which attracted so many American composers during the inter-war years. With its extraordinary orchestra of multiple pianos, percussion, electric buzzers and even aeroplane propellers it was a typical example of the modernism which was then changing the face of music. Although the music was not much liked at the time, it certainly made an impression and gave the composer a reputation.
What is recorded here is not the original version but the revision of 1953. This lacks the cutting edge of the music's more extreme nature, but the instrumentation remains distinctive: glockenspiel, propellers, gong, cymbal, woodblock, triangle, snare drum, tambourine, electric bells, drums, xylophones and four pianos. The music has much in common with the moto perpetuo style of Stravinsky, as found in works such as Les Noces and the Concert for piano and winds. In fact it is somewhat derivative. Daniel Spalding directs an accomplished performance, clearly articulated, with plenty of vitality. And the Naxos recording is clear and well focused.
The Symphony for Five Instruments is another Parisian composition, and stylistically also shows the Stravinsky influence. The music is charming and entertaining, nothing more. More interesting is the wind scoring of the Concert for Chamber Orchestra of 1932, originally entitled 'Octet for Winds'. This is beautifully performed and proves a most attractive and witty work, full of subtleties rhythmic inventiveness.
The Serenade for Strings is a later piece, composed in 1948, back in America. But it sounds as if it comes from an earlier generation, more conventional in its post-romantic outlook. It is none the worse for that, however, since the invention is attractive and the fluency of development entirely pleasing, not least because of the excellent ensemble playing and intonation of the Philadelphia ensemble.
Throughout the programme the recording is sympathetic and atmospheric, one of the best that Naxos has produced. And high standards are also found in the accompanying booklet, which is beautifully designed and printed, with well written, informative notes by Joshua Cheek.