ANTHEIL: McConkey’s Ferry. Capital of the World. The Golden Bird. Nocturne in Skyrockets. Symphony No. 1, “Zingareska” / BBC Philharmonic Orch.; John Storgårds, cond / Chandos CHAN 20080
Conductor John Storgårds continues his series of George Antheil’s orchestral works with this disc, which starts off with later works (McConkey’s Ferry, 1948, and Capital of the World, 1953-55) and ends up with two early works, The Golden Bird (1921), of which this is the first recording, and the Symphony No. 1, “Zingareska” (1920-22, revised 1923) with the Nocturne in Skyrockets (1951) sandwiched between them.
To a certain extent, Storgårds’ conducting style is a wee bit “soft” for Antheil, whose music had moments of edginess in it even to the very end. I found, for instance, that Theodor Kuchar’s recording of McConkey’s Ferry maintained its edge even in the soft passages, whereas Storgårds eases up to produce a lovely legato during the soft, slow passages. A small detail, but one worth noting.
The ballet suite Capital of the World is based on a 1936 short story by Ernest Hemingway called “The Horns of the Bull” about a young Spanish boy who works as a waiter in a Madrid restaurant patronized by “mediocre bullfighters.” (Apparently, if your matador lives through his bullfights and takes lunch in a restaurant, he is mediocre.) The boy, Paco, wants to become a matador himself, but the restaurant’s pot-washer challenges him to fight a simulated bull he has devised by attaching knives to a chair which he continually thrusts at him. You guessed it: Paco is killed by the knife-bearing chair. Me, I wouldn’t walk across the street to see such a stupid ballet, but I guess Antheil’s macho side was attracted to this sort of thing. The music is alternately lively and energetic and soft and lyrical, but little sticks in your mind as you listen to it.
The Golden Bird is a very imaginative work in Antheil’s earlier style. Influenced by the work of sculptor Constantin Brancusi, it is titled Chinese Magician in one of the manuscripts. It also exists as an original piano composition, but in listening to the orchestrated version you’d never guess that it wasn’t initially conceived that way. Still, Antheil shelved it because it failed to make much of an effect on his London audience. A shame, really, as it is a first-class work.
The Nocturne in Skyrockets begins serenely and nocturne-like enough, with a soft French horn into followed by a delicate oboe theme before the strings enter to play, but eventually has some aural “skyrockets” in it that take one by surprise. For a later work (1951), this is surprisingly good.
But the real masterpiece in this set is saved for last. The Symphony No. 1 was inspired by the New Jersey environment in which he had grown up, in which he abandoned the academic rules of composition in favor of his own voice. Listening to this work, it’s hard to believe that he studied composition with Ernest Bloch and that Bloch initially refused to take him on as a pupil because he thought his music too stodgy! Even the slow first movement has a unique quality that could only have been produced by Antheil, although in this early work it is mixed with a quasi-Middle Eastern exoticism. The second movement, titled “Vivo, alla zingaresco, poi ragtime” is closer to the Antheil of the Ballet Mécanique but much more colorfully orchestrated., with plenty of astringent wind effects and booming trombone section statements. There are also some laughing or drunken-sounding clarinets in the middle section. In the third movement, Antheil creates a hypnotic effect by repeating a three-note motif played softly by the glockenspiel as an almost chamber-orchestra-sized group of strings and winds play in the foreground.
The last movement, marked “Ragtime,” is the most energetic, but it is precisely here that Storgårds is the stodgiest and least ragtime-like. Don’t these people even listen to ragtime recordings before they attempt to recreate the beat? I thought all these folks were into historically-informed-historicals. So where’s their sense of historicity? Still, it’s a lively performance, just incorrect in terms of rhythm.
So there you go. I personally liked the two early pieces the best, with the caveats noted above.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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