George ANTHEIL (1900-1959)
Serenade No.1 for string orchestra (1948) [16:39]
Serenade No.2 for chamber orchestra (1949) [22:37]
The Golden Bird (1919) [4:08]
Dreams (1934) [30:20]
Württembergische Philharmonie/Fawzi Haimor
rec. 2018, Studio of Württembergischen Philharmonie Reutlingen
CPO 555196-2 [74:05]
A few words about the composer will put this CD into context. George Antheil was born on 8 July 1900 in Trenton, New Jersey. He was of Polish descent. He studied with Ernest Bloch at the Philadelphia Conservatory, before embarking on a career as a concert pianist. Antheil composed several ‘modernist’ works for performance at his recitals. Three of the most outré were the Airplane Sonata, the Sonata Sauvage and Mechanisms. His most outrageous work was Ballet mécanique featuring player-pianos, sirens, airplane propellers and electric bells. This music was avant-garde and cutting edge: it often bemused audiences.
Whilst in Europe, Antheil moved in the rarefied circles of the arts world. He numbered James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Ernest Hemingway among his friends.
I guess that few people will have explored the entirety of his massive catalogue which includes more than 300 works. The core of his catalogue are the six numbered symphonies, two piano concertos, many chamber works and much music for solo piano. In his later years he began to compose music for the films including The Pride and the Passion starring Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren.
The clue to understanding Antheil’s music is the simple rule of thumb that as he aged his style became more ‘conservative’ and ‘tonal’ in sound. By the mid-1930s his work was progressing towards neo-romanticism and neo-classicism. Three of the four works in this CD fall into this latter category. The early The Golden Bird is more ‘avant-garde.’
I enjoyed every bar of the Serenade No.1 for string orchestra which was composed in 1948. It was completed whilst Antheil was working on his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. The opening movement is a breezy and bouncy little ‘allegro’ written in ‘sonata’ form, without too much contrast between the first and second subjects. The heartfelt ‘andante molto’ uses a long-breathed melody, supported by occasional pizzicato figures alluding to the first movement. There are several short ‘cadenzas’ for cello and violin solos, with orchestral tremolandos adding to the reflective, nocturnal quality of this music. It is the longest of the three movements. The finale, a ‘vivo’, has all the markings of a hootenanny. Not quite as folksy as it could have been, however some reviewers have suggested that it is Shostakovich or Prokofiev at the Barn Dance. I think it is simply George Antheil at his most approachable.
This Serenade was dedicated to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the Chicago-born socialite, pianist and strong supporter of the arts.
The Serenade No.2 for chamber orchestra (it is wrongly billed on the CD cover track listing as being for string orchestra) includes wind section, brass, pianist and percussionist. It is hard to imagine that it was composed only a year after No.1. This is a darker, more profound score that sometimes seems to be morphing into a film score. The opening movement presents a well-constructed movement in sonata form, beginning with a nocturnal introduction. The slow movement could have been taken from a contemporary cowboy film and is none the worse for that. The finale is a mass of sound with a strong swing and a lovely big tune. During the ‘quite fast’ movements, the pianist in the band makes a virtuosic contribution as well as including a strong performance from the percussionist.
The two Serenades are chalk and cheese. They major on different emotions and ‘world views.’ Both are essential elements of Antheil’s late style. Despite being called serenades, these two works are long and complex enough to have been labelled ‘symphonies’ or ‘sinfoniettas’.
The short piece of chinoiserie The Golden Bird (1919) lasts for a mere four minutes, yet it is a wonderfully entertaining work of musical impressionism. It was originally written for piano solo and later transcribed by the composer for orchestra. It was apparently influenced by the Romanian sculptor, painted and photographer Constantin Brâncuși (1876-1957). Antheil initially called the work Chinese Magician. Listening to this piece suggests that this is probably a more appropriate title. The work ticks all musical clichés for an oriental sorcerer including wooden blocks and magical glissandi. On the other hand, birdsong also makes an appearance...It may be best to see this as a miniature tone poem with an unwritten plot: an American Sorcerer’s Apprentice perhaps? Despite being ‘modern’ in sound it deserves a place in the standard orchestral repertoire, if for no other reason than its perfectly contrived orchestration.
The longest work on this CD is the ballet Dreams. This is a potpourri of brief snatches of marches, waltzes, polkas and can-cans. A reviewer (Paul A. Snook, Fanfare) of this work has described it as ‘authentic Americana with a Parisian accent’: this is a good call. The ballet was written in 1934 for George Balanchine. Apparently, a score had originally been provided by French composer Darius Milhaud, then titled Les Songes. New music was demanded for the American stage and Antheil obliged. The ballet is an interpretation of a surrealist poem by the French author André Derain; it is about a Dancer and a Rat-Acrobat who haunts her dreams. The score is a delight. Clearly, Antheil has had fun here. The musical ‘plot’ would appear to be about balancing inconsistent musical formulas such as waltz/march and folksong/romantic ‘film’ type music. The entire piece is amusing and entertaining from start to finish. Once again, the listener will revel in Antheil’s clever and imaginative scoring.
Like many CPO recordings, the liner notes are prolix. I accept that they present vast amounts of information, but to be quite honest, the size of the font makes it difficult and tiring to read. I do not understand why downloads of CPO inserts and artwork are not readily available. I have consulted other sources whilst preparing my review.
The performance of these four works is superlative. The Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen conducted by Fawzi Haimor bring panache, enthusiasm, colour and sometimes a welcome sense of humour to this great music. The recording is ideal too.
This is part of an ongoing series of George Antheil’s music released by CPO. Let’s hope that there will be several more releases soon. There is certainly much in Antheil’s ‘back’ catalogue to have a go at.