Antheil’s Orchestral Works Get a New Reading

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ANTHEIL: Over the Plains. Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5 / BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; John Storgårds, conductor / Chandos 10941

Having started a series of CDs on the music of Aaron Copland, the BBC Philharmonic is now embarking on a series of CDs devoted to the music of “bad boy” George Antheil. This is the first installment in that series.

To a certain extent, Antheil may be seen as the antithesis to Copland. The latter’s music was primarily tuneful, using several traditional American folk songs as its basis, whereas Anthiel’s was angular, choppy and full of unexpected surprises. Yet both composers tended to mellow out as time went on, and it’s interesting that the orchestra chose to begin its Antheil series with lae-period works. Moreover, the CD opens with the formerly unrecorded Over the Plains, which sounds so much like a Copland work from the early 1940s (borrowing, as it does, on cowboy music) that I was a bit taken aback. Yes, the orchestra plays the music in a sprightly manner, and yes, it does have some unexpected twists that only Antheil could have thought up, but still. It’s just a lightweight piece of musical fluff.

Not so the craggy, Shostakovich-like Fourth Symphony, subtitled by the year in which it was written, “1942.” Indeed, one might almost hear this as a more tightly constructed, Americanized version of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, given its American premiere that year by Arturo Toscanini. In the first movement, Antheil even presages Shostakovich—whose score he couldn’t possibly have heard or seen at the time of writing—by utilizing a quasi-French dance-like melody, as the Russian composer did with the “Maxim’s” song in his Seventh. One difference is that it comes much earlier in the score, in fact just a couple of minutes into the first movement. Another is that Antheil intensifies its impact by slowly tightening up the tempo and adding clashing harmonies and shrill trumpet and flute passages, until finally it assumes almost Mahlerian stature. Interestingly, the composer himself bristled at suggestions that he had been influenced by the Russian composer’s Seventh Symphony, pointing out that the theme he used in the first movement came from his own 1930 opera Transatlantic. But it’s still a fascinating parallel. Typically of Anthiel, he had to throw this back in the critics’ faces, writing, “I am not going to change my style to please said critics: finders is keepers.”

The orchestration, however, is very typically Antheil, full of bright sonorities and even a xylophone madly jangling behind the brass and winds as the theme becomes more martial and threatening. The very Mahler-like second movement “Allegro” has a startling theme and, later, the wonderful use of a counter-melody played by the basses in bowed eighth notes against a more angular tune played by a solo flute. This eventually gives way to a more relaxed, tonal theme which he develops quite interestingly. I should point out that although Theodor Kuchar’s recording of this symphony with the Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra is somewhat faster in tempo, I actually prefer Storgårds’ phrasing, which is more lyrical and more finely shaded in dynamics. Storgårds is also more dramatic in his use of the musical material.

The third movement turns away from references to Shostakovich or Mahler; both melodically and rhythmically, it is closer to the Antheil of the late 1920s/early ‘30s, although it is very light in both tone and orchestration. In the fourth we return to a more dramatic frame of mind, its initial theme interrupted by brash, double-time figures played in an equally brash manner by the brass, winds and that darn xylophone again. It comes to a very dramatic, crashing, yet positive end.

The Fifth Symphony is actually the second that Antheil wrote with that title. It seems that he initially wrote a very sorrowful, angst-ridden work with that title, but put it aside and never formally adopted it as one of his symphonic works. In its place, he wrote this continuous, jolly work—its subtitle is “Joyous”—which premiered under Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1948. Shortly thereafter it was performed at Carnegie Hall, where Virgil Thomson reviewed it quite positively. There are some auditors who hear in it a “copy” of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, but I find it considerably different, particularly in its construction which is much better and less rambling than the Prokofiev work. (Others hear it as being influenced by the Shostakovich Fifth, but I don’t hear that at all.) Oddly, I found my attention drifting during the second movement. It’s well written but doesn’t really say very much. I’m glad Thomson liked it.

The third movement bears some resemblance to the “Game of Pairs” from Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, but Antheil becomes a bit too garrulous and repetitious here. Overall, it’s a good piece, and Storgårds certainly conducts it well, but I just wasn’t convinced by it.

A split review, then. Over the Plains, pretty good. The Fourth Symphony, excellent. The Fifth Symphony, meh. What can I tell you? That’s how it struck me!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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