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|1. Ballet Mecanique (Revised 1953) - Philadelphia Virtuosi Co / Spa|
|2. Serenade for String Orchestra, No. 1 - Philadelphia Virtuosi Co / Spa|
|3. Symphony for Five Instruments (Second Version) - Philadelphia Virtuosi Co / Spa|
It's one of those works it seems everyone's heard of but never actually listened to; the only disappointment is that what we have here is Antheil's revised version, which makes more reasonable demands than the original - only four pianos, two propellers and two electric bells! It's hard to tell what all the fuss was about back in 1926; musically this is hardly the toughest thing you'll be asked to get your ears around, rhythmically it's engaging and highly danceable, and with the original excesses tamed, the Ballet Mécanique comes across as quirky rather than controversial.
So you'll probably buy this new cd for the famous Ballet, but the reasons you'll want to return to it come afterwards. There's the Serenade for String Orchestra, which feels like Dag Wiren crossed with Shostakovich; then the tiny 12-minute Symphony for Five Instruments (one of Antheil's own favourites) which sounds like an excellent piece of newly-discovered neo-classical Stravinsky... and finally Antheil's Concert for Chamber Orchestra, written just before he returned to America after a slump in popularity.
Spalding and his Philadelphians are feisty enough in the Ballet, refined and reflective in the other works. This is a great chance to check out one of the least heard but most notorious works of the 20th century... and afterwards you can revel in some genuinely interesting, almost unknown chamber music. Good notes too: it's a steal.
Andrew McGregor - presenter of CD Review on Radio 3 --John Armstrong
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To be fair to Antheil, his music has its own merits, for one thing being entirely trusted to the percussion and an eccentic mix of instruments at that, including airplane propellers and electric bells among the more standard piano, drums, glockenspiel, xylophones, and such. It does create a uniquely extravagant and arresting sound. And then the music's multirhythms and off-rhythms give it the enlivening thrust that so many of this century's percussion extravaganzas lack. Overall, an interesting and appealing piece.
The "Symphony for Five Instruments" and "Concert Music for Chamber Orchestra" recall the neoclassical Stravinsky of the "Octet" and "Symphonies for Wind Instruments," but the quirky instrumentation of Antheil's symphony, with the prominence given to the sometimes clownish antics of the trumpet, abetted by the trombone, recall (or anticipate) Poulenc as well. Playful and enjoyable stuff despite its obvious hommage to Stravinsky. The "Concert" is more sullen and sober-sided and so is a bit more facelessly neoclassical.
Perhaps my favorite work here is the relatively late (1948) "Serenade for Strings No. 1," a gentle, very American piece with a skittish, syncopated first movement that has elements of the barn dance along with what seems like Latin dance rhythms. The tender, deeply felt slow movement is the high point of the work. The agreeably tipsy last movement returns us to the dance. This piece shows that Antheil never lost his Stravinskian belief that, as the Russian master said, "Rhythm is all."
The performances by the Philadelphia Virtuosi are indeed virtuosic but also highly sympathetic and even loving in the serenade. The recording, made in the War Memorial building of Antheil's native Trenton, New Jersey, is wonderfully vibrant and detailed. In all, a fine tribute to this mostly forgotten composer that should garner renewed interest in his music.