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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]

This is Chandos’ third Antheil collection and once again the music is OTT - wild, unruly, turbulent and brashly colourful – and John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic successfully accommodate Antheil’s excesses for the delectation(?) of the composer’s enthusiasts.  I must say I am close to becoming a somewhat bewildered Antheil enthusiast, having approached his music from the direction of his film scores.

McKonkey’s Ferry has a special significance in American history, for this is where Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas Night 1776. Antheil’s commemoration piece was described as a ‘full-blown audience rouser’ but without any formal musical distinction. ‘Shostakovich at his most bombastic’, was its observed comparison. Certainly it sounds patriotic in a disordered sort of way - but it is undeniably fun.

Antheil’s three Capital of the World dances, comprising his ballet suite, had their original inspiration in a Hemingway story, The Horns of the Bull, in which, a hotel pot-washer, a Spanish boy who is a bullfighter-hero worshipper, plays, fatally, with a bull-simulator of knives attached to a chair. Spanish music influences the work: exotic colours and rhythms abound in Antheil’s score. The opening ‘Tailor Shop’ dance is joyous and optimistic, the ‘Meditation’ central dance slow, almost static, but with a distinct Spanish lilt and the concluding ‘Knife dance’ and its associated Flamenco ‘Farruca’ are vividly scored and suitably turbulent.     

The Golden Bird was written for piano and then transcribed for orchestra in the same year, 1921. Described as a Chinoiserie, its flavour is all that. It is colourfully and exotically scored and reminds me of Stravinsky’s and Percy Grainger’s music.

Antheil’s Nocturne in Skyrockets is supposed to be a depiction of a youthful dance around an election-night bonfire.  It is graced by a lovely horn solo opening before the music changes from whimsy to a more mysterious condition with unsettling dissonances.

The main work in the programme is Antheil’s Symphony No. 1, subtitled ‘Zingareska’; this somewhat puzzling subtitle means “gypsy-like”. Mervyn Cooke, writing the notes for this album, observes that Antheil wanted to write ‘a symphony inspired by New Jersey [where he had grown up] that marked a deliberate abandonment of academic compositional techniques in favour of music driven by emotional and atmospheric stimuli…Chief among the extra-musical sources of inspiration for the symphony were the town of Trenton where Antheil’s father ran a shoe store, and the Delaware River.’    

As one might expect, this symphony’s style and structure is extravagant, unconventional and very eclectic.  There is a great nostalgia here for the ragtime era just lately succeeded by the 1920s jazz scene, although, as Mervyn Cooke suggests, ‘the symphony is far closer to circus music than to syncopated jazz’. Another strong influence is Stravinsky’s Petrouchka.

The first movement marked ‘Innocente’ among other markings is atmospheric, mistily mysterious, yet warmly nostalgic, too, with interesting material for a solo cello and pastoral-like ripples. It has a gypsy-like romantic swell and at times recalls Max Steiner’s more romantic indulgencies. The scherzo, unusually the longest movement, has that circus/carnival-like atmosphere, and also a chinoiserie feeling. It recalls Petrouchka, as observed earlier. The ragtime elements are somewhat sardonic here, sometimes quite cruelly so.  The third movement is marked Doloroso elevato and it is heavenly sweet and plaintive, with persistent ostinato figures of xylophone and glockenspiel.  An excited flock of birds might be imagined at one point. Discords shatter the peace, brass blares, lower strings buzz. Vaughan Williams territory is momentarily visited. The Finale is marked ‘Ragtime’ and is a bit ‘oompah,oompah-ish’, the music contrasting the jaunty with the despairing, and with those gypsies and chinoiseries still also present.       

Another wild, unruly, turbulent and brashly colourful Antheil collection - strangely addictive stuff.

Ian Lace

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