Chandos’ Antheil Cycle Continues

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 9

My colleague Victor Carr Jr. accurately pegged George Antheil’s modus operandi, saying that the composer “had a peculiar way of absorbing every music he encountered, and then inserting it—not always fully digested—into his own work.” One moment you might encounter plaintive Copland-esque lyricism, to be interrupted by barnstorming à la Shostakovich that’s quickly pacified by a big, sweeping string tune supported by harp glissandos by the Hollywood bowlful, with healthy doses of Gershwin-era jazz.

His Third symphony ( “American”) is a case in point. The first movement represents New York City’s restless energy and edgy joy, while prodding accents and contrapuntal rejoinders ensure that even the softly lyrical sections can’t relax. The finale “Back to Baltimore” is similarly petulant and punchy; the momentum of Antheil’s repeated phrases are right out of the early Shostakovich playbook. In the second movement, one might describe the frequent chamber-like textures and extended funeral music sequences as “Mahler wearing cowboy boots”, while the upbeat third movement utilizes music from Antheil’s abandoned film score originally intended for Cecil B. DeMille’s film epic Union Pacific. Antheil’s flair for film scoring, however, truly hits home in his Sixth symphony, notably in the first movement’s inventive orchestration and volatile drama. The third movement evokes Prokofiev’s motoric style and boundless melodic supply, while the central Larghetto is atypically (for Antheil) concentrated and lyrically sustained, as well as harmonically gorgeous.

Antheil’s sound world comes vividly alive with the BBC Philharmonic under John Storgårds’ perceptive and idiomatic leadership. For the most part, Storgårds’ interpretations are comparable to those in Hugh Wolff’s standard-setting CPO Antheil cycle. They also boast a small sonic advantage in that Chandos’ engineering captures first-desk soloists and string tuttis at closer range, in contrast to CPO’s slightly diffuse concert hall realism. Yet in some instances Wolff’s interpretations convince more.

For example, while Storgårds’ slower tempo for the Third symphony’s finale ensures sharper shaping of syncopated phrases and harder-hitting accents, I prefer the balletic nature of Wolff’s quicker and lighter conception. Wolff also takes the rousing Hot-Time Dance up a notch on the musical speedometer. Furthermore, Wolff’s bracing and incisively articulated performance of the Archipelago Rumba easily bests Storgårds’ more lumbering, less “swinging” rendition. Yet in the Spectre of the Rose Waltz (an unabashed Der Rosenkavalier/La Valse knock-off), Storgårds’ curvaceous strings gladly partake in the schlag without overindulging. Lastly, I must mention Mervyn Cooke’s highly informative and meticulously researched booklet notes. I look forward to further volumes in Chandos’ Antheil cycle.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Symphonies: Wolff (CPO)

    Symphony No. 3 (“American”); Symphony No. 6 (“after Delacroix”); Hot-Time Dance; Spectre of the Rose Waltz; Archipelago

    BBC Philharmonic, John Storgårds

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