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George ANTHEIL (1900-1959)
McKonkey’s Ferry Concert Overture (1948) [9.13]
Capital of the World (Three Dances) (1953-55) [18.00]
The Golden Bird Chinoiserie for piano (1921, orchestrated by the composer) [4.22]
Nocturne in Skyrockets (1951) [5.30]
Symphony No. 1 ‘Zingareska’ (1920-22, rev. 1923) [32.48]
BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds
rec. 2018, MediaCity UK, Salford, Manchester, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20080 [70.26]

John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic have already recorded Antheil’s Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and with the third disc in their series they hightail it back to No.1 subtitled Zingareska, written in 1920-22 and revised in 1923. It was the inaugural example of his cycle but something of a problem child. Stokowski was due to premiere it in Philadelphia but before he had the chance Antheil took the score of the symphony with him to Europe where the first two movements (only) were given by the Berlin Philharmonic in a partial première in November 1922. The quixotic composer hadn’t trusted conductor Rudolf Schulz-Dornburg to do justice to the final two movements.

It’s a young man’s privilege to open his first symphony with a gloomily introspective panel. Though he dedicated the work ‘For the happiness of Mary Louise Bok’ – Bok being his patroness and soon to found the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia – there’s nothing happy about the doloroso stretches of much of the lamenting opening movement. In fact Antheil told Bok it was a tragic symphony and for much of this movement – the voluptuous sweeping elements aside – it sounds like one. The second movement scherzo invokes Gypsy nomenclature but its debt to Stravinsky is evident, and there’s a slightly sleazy Ragtime episode and some hallucinatory writing in a movement that oscillates wildly between expressive states. Back to gloom for the slow movement, taut and tense, underpinned by tightly articulated winds. For the Ragtime finale Antheil looks to Petrouchka and though this hasn’t always pleased critics – at least since the work was rediscovered and finally performed and recorded complete by Hugh Wolff in Frankfurt in 2000 – it offers plenty of vitality. And I can think of a number of other composers of the time who don’t get socked in the chops as Antheil does for absorbing Stravinsky’s influence.

McConkey’s Ferry was composed in 1948, inspired by a painting of 1851 that depicted an incident of the Revolutionary War. It was seen as something of a bombastic work by critics of the time, and rather too in thrall to Soviet models. I think that’s not wholly unfair but Antheil gives rein to solo trumpet, to the percussion and conjures up plenty of tumult. Capital of the World is a suite for orchestra extracted from his 1952 ballet of the same name and based on a Hemingway short story. The three dances offer plenty of excitement for lovers of high definition colour and surging rhythms. Antheil sounds close to Milhaud at several points in the first dance – there’s a shared sense of enchantment in Latin American colour and sway – and he is charm itself in the central dance, liltingly melodious with Iberian guitar intimations and sinuous stretches. The vibrant percussive final dance reinforces the extrovert warmth of the writing; a real winner of a piece.

The final two small pieces are heard in premiere recordings. The Golden Bird: Chinoiserie, written at around the same time he was composing the First Symphony, was composed simultaneously for piano and for orchestra. Only four or so minutes long, it has inevitable colour-conscious exotic effects. In Nocturne in Skyrockets Antheil imagined a July night for this effective bonne-bouche with its stately and immediately attractive theme.

There are fine notes and a spacious, warmly sympathetic recording. The third volume in this series proves just as gripping as the previous two.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Ian Lace

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