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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 Orchestra/John Storgårds
rec. 2018, MediaCity UK, Salford, Manchester, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20080 [70:26]

In recent years I have come to own a number of very fine recordings of the maverick American composer George Antheil. Though he famously described himself as “The Bad Boy of Music”, this disc, along with the previous discs in this series (Volume 1 ~ Volume 2), clearly shows that there is a lot more to this composer than his reputation as an enfant terrible. His more mature music offers a wonderful synthesis of European and American symphonic styles.

The first piece on this disc is the Concert Overture McKonkey’s Ferry, which depicts George Washington and the revolutionary forces crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Night 1776. Despite its patriotic inspiration, there is little of the American spirit in the music here. Rather, the bold downward strokes of the strings are more reminiscent of Shostakovich than anything American. However, if the aim was to create a rousing piece that would stir and inspire, well then, the result should certainly have been a crowd pleaser.

In contrast the following work, the three dances from his Capital of the World, offer a totally different side of his music, less bombastic and more inspired. It is based on the Ernest Hemingway short story ‘The Horns of the Bull’ and tells of a young man and his dreams of becoming a bullfighter. This is a one of Antheil’s most melodic and tuneful works, full of Spanish colour and flavour without being slavish to Spanish dance tunes. Each of the three dances has a different atmosphere and rhythm, with the first having a swagger that would not have been out of place in Bernstein’s music. In comparison the second dance has the feel of hot Spanish afternoons, just ripe for a siesta. The music is quite languid at times, although it does pick up a little when Antheil introduces a lilting main theme which fades in and out. The final dance, as the title Knife Dance and Farruca, suggests, is the most fiery and agitated. More than a hint of Flamenco runs through the music, with castanets and a stomping rhythm. This marvellous little suite more than highlights the range of orchestral colour the composer was capable of conjuring up.

Next come two short pieces that again show Antheil as a colourist. The Golden Bird was originally a ‘Chinoiserie for piano’ that the composer orchestrated in 1921, and an excellent job he made of it. It is full of Chinese colour and feeling along with a goodly hint of Stravinsky thrown in for good measure. In the second, Nocturne in Skyrockets, Stravinsky is again present, with a suggestion of The Firebird in places, though there is also more than a hint of film music here, reflecting his many years in Hollywood.

The main work on this disc is the Symphony No. 1, which bears the name ‘Zingareska’. It was composed between 1920 and 1922 and revised the following year, and it is this revised edition that we have here. Antheil set out to produce a work that was inspired by his personal memories of growing up in Trenton, a small town in New Jersey. It opens with a slowish first movement, entitled Innocente, which has a strongly emotional feel. The second movement is where the Gypsy aspect comes through, the depiction of travelling circus performances and carnival rides giving the feel of Stravinsky once again, this time of Petrushka. The third movement opens quite lugubriously, slowly and quietly building up a tension that is interrupted only occasionally. The final movement reflects the composer’s introduction to jazz, starting with a section entitled Ragtime, but Scott Joplin it isn’t. Brash and quirky, this movement is perhaps the most varied, with constant switches in intensity and at times a ferocity reminiscent of The Rite of Spring. There is plenty here to get your teeth in, with Antheil’s mature style breaking through despite the influences of Stravinsky.

This is a splendid disc, one which I have enjoyed greatly. The performances by the BBC Philharmonic are excellent throughout, with John Storgårds certainly getting the best from the orchestra as he also does in the previous two volumes. With vivid recorded sound, this disc is a must for all Antheil fans. Good booklet notes by Mervyn Cooke only add to the enjoyment of this satisfying and engaging issue.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous reviews: Ian Lace ~ Jonathan Woolf



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