The main problem with the early works of George Antheil, self-styled "Bad Boy of Music," is also its chief virtue: It's derivative of Igor Stravinsky. But then if you're going to slavishly follow a model, you probably couldn't choose a better one. In the Ballet Mechanique, Antheil's most famous work, you'll hear the percussion effects of "The Rite of Spring," "L'histoire," and especially "Les Noces." But you'll also note that the contours of the melodic snippets played by the tuneable percussion are Stravinskian as well, sounding like the Russian folk melodies that give "Les Noces" such impetus.
To be fair to Antheil, his music has its own merits, for one thing being entirely trusted to the percussion and an eccentic mix of instruments at that, including airplane propellers and electric bells among the more standard piano, drums, glockenspiel, xylophones, and such. It does create a uniquely extravagant and arresting sound. And then the music's multirhythms and off-rhythms give it the enlivening thrust that so many of this century's percussion extravaganzas lack. Overall, an interesting and appealing piece.
The "Symphony for Five Instruments" and "Concert Music for Chamber Orchestra" recall the neoclassical Stravinsky of the "Octet" and "Symphonies for Wind Instruments," but the quirky instrumentation of Antheil's symphony, with the prominence given to the sometimes clownish antics of the trumpet, abetted by the trombone, recall (or anticipate) Poulenc as well. Playful and enjoyable stuff despite its obvious hommage to Stravinsky. The "Concert" is more sullen and sober-sided and so is a bit more facelessly neoclassical.
Perhaps my favorite work here is the relatively late (1948) "Serenade for Strings No. 1," a gentle, very American piece with a skittish, syncopated first movement that has elements of the barn dance along with what seems like Latin dance rhythms. The tender, deeply felt slow movement is the high point of the work. The agreeably tipsy last movement returns us to the dance. This piece shows that Antheil never lost his Stravinskian belief that, as the Russian master said, "Rhythm is all."
The performances by the Philadelphia Virtuosi are indeed virtuosic but also highly sympathetic and even loving in the serenade. The recording, made in the War Memorial building of Antheil's native Trenton, New Jersey, is wonderfully vibrant and detailed. In all, a fine tribute to this mostly forgotten composer that should garner renewed interest in his music.