In 1947 a survey indicated that the four American composers whose works orchestras most often performed were George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and George Antheil. Remarkable, considering that the first three composers remain immensely popular, and people don't always give much attention to Antheil anymore. Remarkable, too, that Antheil ever became as popular as he did (at least for a short time) given the limited number of works he produced and the general ordinariness of most of his classical output.
Born in Trenton, New Jersey, Antheil (1900-1959) became a celebrity at an early age as a piano prodigy and later as a self-proclaimed "bad boy" of music with his wildly elaborate stage productions. By the late Thirties, however, he had apparently repelled enough of his classical musical followers that necessity forced him to work in Hollywood, successfully composing music for movies and later television, working as a writer of pulp fiction, and co-inventing a radar guidance system for the Navy.
By 1944, however, he was back in form as a classical composer with his Fourth Symphony, which no less a musical light than Leopold Stokowski and the NBC Symphony Orchestra premiered and championed. Critics hailed the symphony as something worthy of comparison to Shostakovich. If so, they may have been thinking of Shostakovich light. Certainly, there is a lot of "war music" in Antheil's work, a lot of hustle and bustle, as we might expect given the era in which he composed it and its subtitle "1942," but it lacks Shostakovich's keener, sharper insight. Still, it's mostly attractive in its own kind of rowdy, boisterous way, and it does keep one's attention.
Its companion piece, the Fifth Symphony, premiered in 1948, again with a luminary in control, Eugene Ormandy and his immaculate Philadelphia Orchestra. Subtitled "Joyous," the Fifth seems to me more original in form, more "American" in its idioms and subject matter than the Fourth; yet it has a degree of sameness about it that wears its welcome thin about halfway through, with Maestro Wolff and his players again giving it their topmost attention. Nevertheless, before it wears thin, it provides an entertaining show.
Finally, for what it's worth, the little companion piece, Decatur at Algiers, came off best for me, maybe because of its very briefness. It works as a sort of quiet place between the more tumultuous symphonies.
CPO released the album in 2000, with sound that is very wide across the stereo stage and very dynamic, especially so in the Fifth Symphony, which can go from the softest solo triangle tap to the loudest crescendos in a matter of seconds, practically startling one out of one's seat. While there is not the best depth of field perceptible nor the greatest midrange transparency, it is fairly natural in overall balance, with no undue prominence given to any one instrument or any one orchestral section.
For those listeners exploring twentieth-century music, particularly American music, Antheil makes a fascinating subject. He's an anomaly of sorts, a hero of yesteryear who today listeners seem to regard largely as a curiosity. One listen to his Fourth Symphony and one can readily understand why Gershwin, Copland, and Barber continue to command public attention--they wrote melodies that have never gone out of style, tunes that easily communicate to the heart and mind. By comparison, Antheil appears mainly to have written a series of sometimes odd, tense, but admittedly thrilling notes.
To listen to a few brief excerpts from this album, click on the forward arrow: