This is a blast. The music of George Antheil is now fairly well represented on disc, which is definitely as things should be, and the releases for instance from cpo shows that there is much more to Antheil’s music than his legendary Ballet Mecanique. Now, none of his symphonies suggest anything as avant-gardistic or iconoclastic as the ballet, but they are still remarkable works. Stylistically, many have made comparisons to Shostakovich, and in some sense there is some similiarities in their uses of rhythm and ranges and juxtapositions of moods, but the musical worlds they inhabit are very different. Perhaps “Shostakovich on speed with more than a dash of Charles Ives” comes closer, but Antheil’s voice is really quite personal, I'd say.
The fourth symphony, from 1944, was premiered by Stokowski, and is probably the work in which the Shostakovich connection is most obvious, especially in the opening Moderato movement, but Antheil draws on a really dizzying array of styles and influences, from Rachmaninov to Roussel and beyond, and it is pretty remarkable that he manages to make it work as a coherent, powerful whole. The following Allegro is ominous and ghostly with hints of film music, but the Scherzo is quirky and light, but sarcastic in the character. The final Allegro non troppo once again suggests Shostakovich, but is full of good ideas and imaginative turns that nevertheless manage to cohere. It is, overall, an excellent work – given the amount of ideas and influences and styles Antheil tries to cover it really shouldn’t have worked, but it does.
The fifth symphony (1947-48) is a riot, so full of energy and optimism that it sounds about to burst at every juncture (it is, indeed, subtitled “Joyous”); Shostakovich may still be a point of comparison – the first movement sounds clearly inspired by the Russian composer’s ballet music, though sped up and with added jazz influences and American sounds – but the language is probably closer to Prokofiev’s fifth and sixth symphonies, though imbued with such breathless energy that even Prokofiev sounds relaxed and content by comparison. Yes, the musical language is eclectic, but once again I have nothing but admiration for how Antheil actually manages to bend the unbridled energy of the work into a coherent, convincing whole. It is really a must-hear.
The seven-minute Decatur at Algiers, placed between the works, was an apt choice for a filler. Described as a “nocturne for orchestra” it is a light and atmospheric work, but its quiet reflectiveness (and deviously, subtly but ever-changing moods) serves as a useful resting point between the bundles of energy that are the symphonies. It is all excellently performed by the Radio Symphony Frankfurt under Hugh Wolff, who finds all the energy and color and flair this music needs – it would certainly be churlish to complain that they are almost too faultless at times. The recorded sound is superb; just the finishing touch on a magnificent release – urgently recommended.