Recording of the Week, Orchestral Works by George Antheil
Some of the more rewarding releases from Chandos recently have for me undoubtedly been their explorations of the less-trodden avenues of the orchestral repertoire, with various recordings devoted to works by Ginastera, Roussel, Richard Rodney Bennett, and Kurt Atterberg, amongst others. One such series which began in 2017 was a survey from the BBC Philharmonic and conductor John Storgårds of the orchestral works of American composer George Antheil, and the second volume is released today, covering two of his symphonies plus a handful of smaller bonbons.
Having moved to Paris in the 1920s in an attempt to cultivate an image as the "Bad Boy of Music" (an epithet that was later to become the title of his autobiography), in 1933 Antheil returned to the US, where he shifted his compositional style away from the avant-garde tendencies of works such as the Sonate sauvage or the Ballet mécanique to a more "American" sound, in line with the sort of music Copland was writing at the time, and he also became a fairly prolific film composer (more on this later).
The Third Symphony was one of the first fruits of this period, and indeed while I was listening to this new recording there were many moments where I was reminded of Copland, particularly works such as Music for the Theatre and El Salón México. As it happens, the BBC Philharmonic have also featured in another Chandos series of Copland's music, and this experience has clearly had a positive knock-on effect here, as it is immediately obvious that the players totally understand the idiom, so effortlessly stylish is the performance from all areas.
Part of Antheil's stylistic shift involved a conscious effort to become more familiar with the symphonic canon, which involved, for instance, a reassessment on his part that Sibelius "was not so bad after all", and so it seems appropriate that the third movement of this symphony (the only part of this piece that was performed during Antheil's lifetime) should quote fairly extensively from the Finnish composer's Fifth Symphony.
If I've made it sound a bit too much like a patchwork of pastiches, I don't mean to take anything away from the inventive orchestration and wealth of melodic ideas that Antheil presents, and in Storgårds's hands it all zips along extremely pleasingly. Much more assured, compositionally speaking, is the Sixth Symphony, partly inspired by a Delacroix painting entitled Liberty Leading the People, in which Liberty stands with the French flag on a corpse-strewn battlefield. The film composer in Antheil can't resist some magnificently pictorial music here, including a brief quotation of the American Civil War song, The Battle Cry of Freedom.
This is followed by a beautifully tender second movement which for me is the highlight of the symphony, a kind of slow waltz featuring some lovely string playing and mellow, expressive woodwind solos. Speaking of waltzes, the disc also includes three shorter pieces: Archipelago (a toe-tapping rhumba), the cheeky Hot-Time Dance, and the waltz from Antheil's score for the 1946 film Specter of the Rose, in which a ballet dancer is suspected of having murdered his first wife and apparently might be about to do the same to the second. I must admit it's not a film I have ever seen, but if I had to try and imagine what a score to such a narrative might sound like, this is it: with shades of Ravel, Antheil writes a waltz that combines balletic grace with an underlying tone of sinister unease, and it is despatched with effervescent deftness by the BBC Philharmonic.
If you're not already familiar with Antheil's music then I would suggest this is a great place to start. Particularly if you're already a fan of Copland, Ives, and that kind of American orchestral music then I'm sure you will be as delighted as I was to discover these works.