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CD Review

George Antheil


  • Symphony #4 (1942)
  • Symphony #6
  • Overture "McKonkey's Ferry - Washington at Trenton"
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar
Naxos 8.559033 67:43
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Possessed.

It's hard to be a radical, to reinvent all the time. George Antheil - with Gershwin, the most innovative American composer of the Twenties and the only one whom one can compare to the aesthetic cluster of Pound, Stein, Cummings, Stevens, and Moore in aim and achievement - hit the ground running with a string of remarkable works: A Jazz Symphony, the notorious Ballet mécanique, the "Airplane" and "Jazz" piano sonatas, and the second violin sonata (with drum), among others. The Twenties was Antheil's decem anni mirabiles. Increasingly, he became less the Bad Boy of Music and more the well-behaved neoclassicist, Stravinsky branch. The music of Shostakovich also touched him. Although he strenuously denied the influence, one can hear the Soviet composer throughout Antheil's Fourth Symphony. Antheil died, relatively young and little regarded, with the work that brought him into prominence in the first place pretty much forgotten in the post-World War II musical environment. One problem musical polemics almost always drag along is the revision of history. From the Fifties through the Seventies, one side repeatedly told us there was only one valid Modern Music (liberals in this camp sometimes made an exception of Bartók) - the twelve-tone road to aesthetic Shambala. I remember one professor confessing to me - always looking over his shoulder to see whether the agents of the inquisition could overhear - that he rather liked Gershwin). Of course, there was enough idiocy to go around in the opposite camp as well.

All the works here come from the Forties. McKonkey's Ferry, the first track, hits you like a giant Acme anvil, more for its in-your-face Shostakovich "Leningrad" references (with a little of Prokofieff's "Battle on the Ice" from Nevsky thrown in) as anything else. You'd swear Shostakovich wrote it. The Soviet composer, of course, reached a popular peak in the Forties, unfortunately accompanied by a critical low. Critics weren't all that happy with the original, whom they considered a facile sell-out, and they really jumped on Antheil, who understandably became defensive to the point where he disclaimed any Shostakovich influence at all. The passage of years has raised Shostakovich's stock tremendously. It may also raise Antheil's later output. After all, what's wrong with another Shostakovich work, even if it's not by Shostakovich? Antheil's result (the only thing that counts) is by no means shabby. It may very well be a case of one composer so completely absorbing another that his artistic impulses fuse with the other's mode of expression. Antheil, however, set great store by originality - in my opinion, too much.

McKonkey's Ferry (the title refers obliquely to Washington's famous crossing of the Delaware; American themes expressed in "American" music were also pretty big in the Thirties and Forties) moves along on vigorous Soviet motor rhythms and some fantastic scoring. The piece isn't particularly descriptive and whatever links to Washington Antheil may have had in mind remain there: they never made it to the page. Fortunately, the overture is wonderful in its own right. It's mostly a quick allegro, with a brief slow and reflective march toward the end before the allegro catches fire again and dashes to the finish. The overture lasts about nine minutes, and to bring off music of such relentless drive for so long and to satisfy the need of variety and contrast is very difficult to bring off. One might, I think, favorably compare this with Shostakovich's rambunctious Festive Overture.

One also hears Shostakovich in the Symphony #4, but it hardly matters. This is one exciting symphony, very well put together indeed. It mixes cyclic procedures with classical thematic transformations in an interesting way. It begins with a sharply-etched "motto," which shows up, either as itself or in various guises, in the other three movements. In the second movement, for example, it appears pretty much as itself, while in the trio of the scherzo third, Antheil transforms it into a fugal subject. Other themes as well turn up in more than one movement, but there's nothing mechanical about the repetition, the feeling one sometimes gets from cyclical works. At the remove of sixty years, the echoes of the Soviet composer matter less than Antheil's creation of a sharply-focused, highly dramatic work. If you didn't know who wrote it or the circumstances of its composition, the question of imitation or pastiche probably wouldn't occur to you. The work impresses all on its own.

The Sixth Symphony, written six years later in 1948, shows Antheil coming out from under the Shostakovian idiom and into an unusual mix of Forties Americana (one of the first-movement themes quotes "The Battle Cry of Freedom") with an "international" push. Some Shostakovich lingers, but one also notes passages that share the sound of Bartók as well as an intense lyricism which belongs only to Antheil. The first movement changes views and tempi in what seems like every few bars or so. It's as if Antheil's mind raced from one thing to the next. Paradoxically, it comes across not as the work of a scattered mind, but of a very clear one indeed. The second movement begins as an update of a Satie Gymnopédie, but this comes from its rhythm and bass line only. The harmonies are much too slide-y for Satie. A contrasting middle sings like Prokofieff, with lush orchestration to match. It could have come out of Roméo and Juliet. Again, what matters is not the answer to "Name That Composer," but how well Antheil speaks in the voices he's chosen.

Although the rondo finale appropriates themes from earlier movements, the ideas seem to try too hard the second time around. Again, Antheil shifts mood and character swiftly, even abruptly, but this time loses the edge of his argument. I consider this the weakest movement of the two symphonies, even though I can't deny that its rousing, bring-'em-to-their-feet end probably will bring 'em to their feet.

For those of us who've endured years of make-do performances of Antheil's music, Kuchar and his Ukrainians snap our garters. Kuchar brings out the tremendous kinetic power of these scores, and the orchestra stays on top of every attack. They even sing and maintain very fine balance among the parts. There's nothing muddy here. Above all, Kuchar and his players have sussed out Antheil's aims and expressive content, perhaps because of their familiarity with Shostakovich and Prokofieff. They always know where the point of the phrase lies. If they show a weakness, it's in conveying the larger structural shape, but then again the composer doesn't give them a lot of help.

Very fine recorded sound.

Copyright © 2004, Steve Schwartz