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George ANTHEIL (1900-1959)
Over the Plains (1945) [7.34]
Symphony No. 4 ‘1942’ (1942) [33.49]
Symphony No. 5 ‘Joyous’ (1947-48) [24.02]
BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds
rec. MediaCity UK, Salford, Manchester, November 2016 (Plains, 5), April 2016 (4)
CHANDOS CHAN10941 [65.45]

It’s very rare that a CD arouses anything akin to angry frustration in me, but my first encounter with this recording of orchestral works by George Antheil led me to cast it aside with an aversion which was the very least of my expectations.

This self-styled ‘Bad boy of Music’ is best known for his avant-garde Ballet mécanique from the 1920s, created when Europe and Paris in particular was a hot-house for the rejection of stuffy tradition, and young artists kicked against every available establishment norm. Antheil’s participation in this inter-war ‘punk’ era did not however lead him to become much of a pioneer in his later career, and this CD is evidence of his being more of a follower rather than a leader when it came to innovation.

If you want to start with something good and work your way outwards with your ear tuned as sympathetically as possible, then have a listen to the Adagio of the Fifth Symphony. This work was written while his mind was on another symphony intended as an elegy to the war dead of the 1940s who included Antheil's younger brother Henry. While the resulting completed work is called 'Joyous' the heartfelt expressiveness of this movement comes across as having the most integrity of anything on this programme. Recognisable musical influences are spread over these works rather thickly, and here there is the conscious use of "certain tunes we sang as boys in a summer camp on the upper Delaware."

Thus attuned and our interest piqued, the net can be cast wider. Over the Plains is a jaunty celebration of America and the plains of Texas which functions neatly as an overture for the two symphonies that follow. For Antheil this piece was "as gay as a young man walking alongside his covered wagon with his little family inside," of course ignoring all of the grinding hard labour, poverty, danger and sickness that these pioneers endured. There are indeed some darker moments in this music, but it is largely a well-crafted blast of Americana with a few touches of Ives in its mixing of themes.

There are arguably a few touches of Shostakovich here too, softening the ground a little for the full onslaught which is the Symphony No. 4 '1942'. This is a war symphony with a clear narrative, the first movement encapsulating a troubled world in which the entire future hangs in the balance. The second meditates on Nazi atrocities in Poland, the Scherzo third comments on "a brutal joke, the joke of war," and the finale is dramatically triumphant. Antheil answered criticisms about the similarities of this work to other symphonies by Shostakovich with an admission that he had recycled music from an opera written in the 1920s thus pre-dating the Russian master, but the fact remains, if you like Shostakovich you will either love this or find yourself more than a little sickened by the rather heavy stylistic similarities throughout. The militaristic final is certainly something of a blockbuster, but all of that percussion just becomes wearing. I was neither moved or impressed by this symphony, though as with all the other works here one has to admire Antheil's craftsmanship as an orchestrator.

The Symphony No. 5 'Joyous' also opens with Shostakovich-like nervy tension, though this soon settles into a more USA kind of mood. Antheil's eclecticism is wider-ranging here, with little snatches of dance rhythm and a generally cinematic state of busy invention that is energetic and rousing but ultimately rather unmemorable. The second slow movement is the best bit, with its Copland pastoral feel creating a special mood and at times taking us sailing close to Britten's Sea Interludes. There must indeed have been 'something in the air.' The finale almost quotes Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony in its opening phrase in a movement that aimed to express the "youthful optimistic joy" of the American character.

Superbly performed and recorded, it is good that conductor John Storgårds has spent time and effort restoring Antheil's original 'wrong notes' that have been sanitised over the years. The performances here are however almost too good, the wild character of the music in the Fifth Symphony for instance given a much more edgy ride by the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Barry Kolman on the Centaur label (review). In this case the first movement comes in at a hairy 7:48 to Storgård's stately 9:06, showing how Antheil's sabre-rattling really works. Similar points can be made for Theodore Kuchar with the National Symphony of Ukraine on Naxos (review) with their more pungent reading of the Fourth Symphony, particularly in the first movement but with plenty of raw power elsewhere. It turns out my frustration is as much with these performances as it is with the composer. If you take this music too seriously then it loses its red-blooded daring, and if it has any soul at all then it has to be found in over-the-top extremes that have been over civilised on this Chandos album.

Dominy Clements
Previous reviews: Ian Lace ~ Stephen Greenbank



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