Saturday, January 12, 2019

Chandos Continues its Antheil Recording Project

In May of 2017, the British Chandos label released an album of the music of George Antheil that promised to be the beginning of a major project to record Antheil’s works. John Storgårds conducted the BBC Philharmonic in performances of two of Antheil’s symphonies, the fourth (“1942”) and the fifth (“Joyous”), along with the world premiere recording of “Over the Plains,” a rather loopy concert overture with ample references to familiar tunes. Antheil liked to refer to himself as a “bad boy;” and the music on this album definitely situates him at a significant distance from both Aaron Copland and Charles Ives (who are, themselves, separated by a considerable distance). However, in writing about Antheil’s music, the description that seemed most appropriate was “joyously raucous.”

At the beginning of this month, Chandos released its second volume in this project. Taking an “inside out” approach, Storgårds leads the BBC Philharmonic in two more symphonies, the third (“American”) and sixth (“after Delacroix”). The sixth was Antheil’s last, but that does not mean that two symphonies remain to be recorded. There is an unnumbered symphony in F, which Antheil begin in the same year that George Gershwin also wrote his concerto in F (with no qualifier for major or minor). Furthermore, the “Joyous” symphony is one of two bearing the number five, the other having the title “Tragic.” Storgårds definitely has his work cut out for him!

The second volume also presents three shorter offerings. This time it opens with the concert overture genre in the form of “Archipelago.” This is a rhumba that was originally the third movement of the second symphony. The album concludes with the “Spectre of the Rose Waltz,” a concert version of music that Antheil wrote for the 1946 film Spectre of the Rose about a homicidal male ballet dancer. The two symphonies are separated by “Hot-Time Dance,” a movement extracted from American Dance Suite No. 1, where it was called “Election Dance.” (Grove Music Online makes no mention of a Dance Suite No. 2!)

The prevailing rhetoric across the entire album is again “joyously raucous.” References to familiar thematic material come and go, but Antheil is never as extensive in his cross-references as Ives ever was. Indeed, I was somewhat amused to discover that the Spectre of the Rose music had much more to do with Jean Sibelius, the “Valse triste” movement from his Opus 44 incidental music for Arvid Järnefelt's 1903 play Kuolema (death), along with a nod or two to Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse,” than Carl Maria von Weber, whose “Invitation to the Dance” served as the score for Michel Fokine’ ballet “Le Spectre de la rose.”

The title of the sixth symphony applies, strictly speaking, only to its first movement, which was inspired by Eugène Delacroix’ famous painting, Liberty Leading the People:

Liberty Leading the People (painted by Eugène Delacroix in 1830, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

To my ears there is nothing particularly French about Antheil’s score. On the other hand there is a somewhat distorted account of the “Battle Cry of Freedom” (also known as “Rally ’Round the Flag”), which would not have been out of place in one of Ives’ scores. This song was written by George Frederick Root during the American Civil War in 1862, but it definitely offers words to consider while looking at Delacroix’ painting.

It is unclear how Storgårds’ project will progress following this second release. The fact that it includes excerpts from longer works suggests that he is not systematically working his way through the list of orchestral works cataloged on Grove Music Online. Indeed, I found it a bit odd that he did not present the two “fifth symphonies” on a single album. Nevertheless, Antheil’s music continues to be so under-represented that I am very likely to follow Storgårds’ releases in whatever direction they may lead.

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