In the 1940’s a survey indicated that the four American composers whose works orchestras most often performed at the time were George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and George Antheil. Remarkable, considering that now, some seventy years on, the first three composers are still immensely popular and the fourth, Antheil, is practically unknown.
American composer George Antheil (1900-1959) was a self-proclaimed “Bad Boy of Music” (the title of his 1945 autobiography) in the 1920’s, going forth to Europe to set the world on fire in the manner of his hero, Igor Stravinsky. There was a difference, of course: Stravinsky wrote music that backed up his revolutionary convictions. Antheil’s music, on the other hand, sounds more like the Hollywood film scores he eventually wrote to earn him and his family money.
Antheil’s Third Symphony (1939) carries the subtitle “American,” and while it is certainly quite American in its themes and reflections on American life, it is hardly a “symphony” at all. It is more like a series of tone poems, each section a description of a different part of the country. I found a lot of it noisy and not a little of it derivative, despite Maestro Hugh Wolff and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony’s best efforts to the contrary. Nevertheless, there is also much to entertain one here, and Wolff’s refined yet lively interpretation seems beyond dispute. I doubt that many other conductors could have pulled it off as well as Wolff does. The performance is expansive, stimulating, and certainly colorful.
The shorter works on the disc find names aptly suited to their content: “Tom Sawyer,” “Hot-Time Dance,” “McKonkey’s Ferry,” and named for a Hemingway short story, “Capital of the World.” The latter, a suite from his ballet, is for me the best thing in the present collection, vibrant and characterful, which Wolff fills with vitality rather than mere notes.
Also among the best things about the disc are its sound and its informational booklet. The CPO engineers do a fine job capturing the clear, open, lively sound of an orchestra going full bore, with wide dynamic contrasts, strong bass, clean highs, and a reasonably transparent midrange. The accompanying booklet note contains an extensive biographical essay on the composer by musicologist and author Eckhardt van den Hoogen. The essay’s only drawback is that it’s presented in three languages, and in order to fit all of it into one little booklet, the typeface is so small you almost need a magnifying glass to read it.
I hope now that Hugh Wolff and his Frankfurt players have finished up their project with Antheil’s symphonic works, they will tackle some of the man’s lighter (and possibly better) pieces, the ones he composed for film: things like The Plainsman, Union Pacific, The Buccaneer, Along the Oregon Trail, Tokyo Joe, and The Pride and the Passion.
To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here: