George Antheil had more ups and downs than most in his career as an American composer. From the extravagant (and perhaps ultimately damaging) attention paid him in Europe in his early twenties---though many, including Aaron Copland, considered him at the time to be the most talented American composer of the postwar generation---he fell into semi-neglect after the Ballet Mechanique fiasco at Carnegie Hall in 1927. He found his way to Hollywood in the 1930s and was able to support his compositional habit by writing movie scores for part of the year. The 1940s saw a temporary resurgence in his career with the three symphonies numbers 4, 5, and 6.
Why these symphonies are not in the repertory is something of a mystery. They are not masterpieces of the highest order, it's true---but plenty of less interesting and infectious music gets played year after year. They are not easy to perform, demanding careful balancing of their sometimes complex textures and virtuoso playing by soloists in all sections, though by the standards of twentieth-century music, they are not difficult. So perhaps it is the economics of rehearsal time that explains it, but a well-prepared performance of any of these works would almost certainly be enthusiastically received by an audience.
Of the two available recordings of each of the symphonies, the Hugh Wolff performances are the most satisfactory. Despite some specific reservations that will be mentioned below, it has to be said that Wolff does a wonderful job of capturing the excitement of Antheil's music and making the pieces hang together convincingly. For while Antheil sometimes wrote long stretches of continuous music (in the first movement of the sixth symphony, for example), his most characteristic style was a kind of montage technique, in which the music can easily fall apart into a series of seemingly unrelated phrases if not played with an overall sense of shape.
The question of originality is often raised in connection to Antheil's music, the most frequent complaint being that it sounds like Shostakovitch. It undeniably does, in places (though Antheil always claimed that the influence was his on the Russian, not vice versa). But Antheil has a distinctive voice, despite some of his procedures being traceable to the Stravinsky of Le Sacre and Symphonies of Wind Instruments, despite having an orchestral palette like Shostakovitch and Prokofiev. One can also hear early Ives in his music (the slow movement of the fifth symphony) and traces of Copland (ditto). A case could be made that it is the common influence of Mahler and other late-nineteenth-century symphonists that explains the similarities rather than contemporaries copying one another. (The public was not that aware of Mahler in the '40s, but composers decidedly were.)
Now for some nitpicking: The accelerando in the last movement of fifth symphony is better managed in the Barry Kolman performance. (It sounds as though Wolff tries to get the tempo up at the point indicated in the score, but then a tympani solo in slightly slow eighth notes keeps the tempo from pressing forward; the result is that the final presto seems abrupt and unmotivated.) Wolff's tempos in last movement of the sixth symphony are just this side of being too fast---the ensemble suffers noticeably---although the performance is even more exciting than Theodor Kuchar's cleaner one.
The recollection of the main theme of the first movement near the end of the fifth symphony (in a quite Ivesian phantasmagoria) is clearer in the Kolman than in the Wolff---perhaps because of the apparently closer miking. (All the details of the score, especially the percussion, are clearer in the Kolman, so if you are a fan of the Solti x-ray technique, you might prefer Kolman's performance.)
Finally, one real quibble: Neither performance of the fifth symphony follows the score in making the initial cymbal crash suffacato (short, like a hi-hat). The way Antheil asked for the cymbal to be played is much more of an initial "grabber"---something composers do think about.
It is good that there are now two highly accomplished performances of the fourth and fifth symphonies in addition to the old rather rough and ready performances from the 1950s. Perhaps, on the evidence of these recordings (and those of the sixth symphony), these highly enjoyable pieces will begin to show up on concert programs.