"It is our usual task", Donald Francis Tovey wrote of annotators, “to act as counsel for the defence”, and whilst Mervyn Cooke’s booklet note for this second Chandos issue of orchestral music by the American maverick George Antheil (1900-59) is full of informative background detail, in terms of any kind of analysis of the works in question he is less forthcoming.
The problem is the music itself: although the two major works here are those Antheil termed Symphonies, there is precious little symphonic invention in either. They are perhaps best described as suites, for the final impression made is of colouration in place of developed musical thought. There would appear to be little doubt that in the Third Symphony Antheil succumbed to the temptation of over-thickening his musical lines, without grasping the essential fact that writing music for large forces entails using the modern orchestra as the servant of one’s ideas, rather than treating it as some kind of inspirational gift.
Much of the music in both Symphonies is frankly over-scored, for all its very occasional brilliant effectiveness. The best one can say – and I write as someone who has often admired Antheil and what, artistically, he stood for – is that the enthusiast who revels in bright colours and dramatic contrasts will be more satisfied with these works than the music-lover who is keen to investigate mid-twentieth-century American symphonism, still searching for that elusive twenty-four-carat American masterpiece.
Some idea of Antheil’s inherent confusion in tackling larger structures can be gauged from the assertion that whilst he naturally writes with a larger-than-usual degree of modernism for the mid-1930s (Symphony No.3, revised 1946) in terms of style he also permits a certain eclecticism in both that work and in No.6 (1950), with the result that the music throughout does not wholly rid itself of the charge of being bourgeois. Although Antheil appears to wish to communicate with an audience which is all-too-often absent from our own contemporary music, there are no inherently redeeming features in either Symphony which would appeal to the general music-lover who, in other circumstances, might wish to return to Antheil’s larger scores often.
There is much more to admire in the three shorter works, which are all more genuinely inspired, scores in which the composer appears more at ease and less in attempting to create an impression without possessing the resource and imagination of his contemporaries such as Copland, Roy Harris or Peter Mennin.
Archipelago (1935) does, however (as Cooke rightly states) reveal not so much an influence as imitation of the Euro-Brazilian language of Milhaud’s Saudades do Brasil of fifteen years earlier. Nonetheless, such flattery as Antheil uncharacteristically bestowed on the Frenchman appears genuine – the result is a lovely six-minute score of immediate appeal, as – to a rather lesser degree – does the Hot-Time Dance. The ‘Hot’ in this instance is neither that of Cole Porter’s High Society from the following decade, nor other syncopated jazz rhythms, but refers to the fires which were (and may still be, for all I know) traditionally lit on election nights across the USA.
It’s another brilliant piece, nicely and effectively orchestrated. The Spectre of the Rose Waltz is an arrangement of original music Antheil composed in 1946 for a Hollywood cult movie Specter (sic) of the Rose; less than five minutes, I shan’t bother with a synopsis of the film, other than to direct you to it being on YouTube (which I think is well worth accessing – I also believe the distant pianist in the opening ballet rehearsal sequence, against which the initial conversation takes place, is Antheil himself).
I welcomed the first Chandos survey devoted to Antheil’s orchestral music enthusiastically, having been turned on to the composer sixty-odd years ago through the fine Capitol LP of his ballet-score Capital of the World (Antheil appears on that also, pianist in the Ballet Theater Orchestra under Joseph Levine) and by attending Hermann Scherchen’s rehearsal and performance at the Royal Festival Hall of the Ballet Mécanique (1923) in the revised version with four pianos, aeroplane propeller and percussionists (my professor was one of the pianists).
By the time Antheil came to write the works on this present collection, he had seemingly abandoned his Dadaesque approach, whilst remaining a fascinating figure in American musical art. Although inconsistent as a composer, his music does merit representation: at its best, it is well worth attention. It is impossible to imagine more committed performances than those John Storgårds obtains from the BBC Philharmonic, or a finer recorded sound than Chandos consistently displays.