The American infant terrible, George Antheil, is most famous for his outlandish mechanically-driven composition Ballet Mecanique. His serious concert music have not received much acclaim in the past, but now with Naxos' American Classics series, they may come into their own. Featured on the disk are his 4th and 6th Symphonies and his concert overture, McKonkey's Ferry.
Depicting George Washington's famous image as he crosses the Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776, Antheil composed the frigid McKonkey's Ferry, an American-based concert overture. The work is an aggressive, if not a bit rough-edged piece, that relies on a regularly falling melody and perpetual motion. In a minor mode throughout, Antheil shows the struggle of Washington's crossing with great imagination and musical imagery. A classic of Antheil's repertory.
His Symphony No. 4, subtitled 1942, is also a somewhat gloomy work, based around the inevitable outbreak of World War II. A brusque statement by unison brass and eventually piano, open the first movement; eventually the opening gives way to an expansive march, relying on bassoons, piccolos, and fanfares. Antheil combines the two ideas into a sort of mocking march to build to a dissonant climax; all dissolves into a quiet unrest. The second movement begins with a familiar sounding melody, almost Russian in nature, but one which is definitely tragic, almost march-like as well. A romantic interlude dispels the minor march for a while, with great leaps of yearning melodies, before the disquiet of the opening melody from the first movement returns. A dissonant and angry scherzo takes up the third movement. After a section of music put into fugue, a grotesque, dance-like feel evolves into an odd-fitting slow march to end the movement. Great tempo and mood changes make the final movement a breathtaking, nearly schizophrenic, mixture of ideas. The symphony concludes triumphantly. Traditionally orchestrated, the addition of passages for piano, xylophone, and woodblock, make this a unique look at war-time music. A creative composition and a personal viewpoint of a passionately American composer.
The Sixth Symphony begins in a menacing manner, with a short motive that becomes more rhythmical, and haunts the entire first movement. Antheil includes more marches, including a final grand march, again, almost Russian sounding. Quotations of The Battle Cry of Freedom are treated in an almost Ivesian fashion. The gritty march ends with emphatic timpani marking time. A melancholy, almost cinematic, waltz makes up the second movement. Of particular note, is a chilling solo piano and glockenspiel duet that is extremely creepy. The final movement is a rugged, forthright, nearly humorous display of optimism.
Antheil's music is often dissonant, but based in a tonal world; but especially, he is a master of writing melodies. Never in his music is there a lack of melodic material, and his settings of melodies are always inventive. The representative works on this disk are a little tragic, but certainly invigorating American music. This is the first I have heard the National Symphony of Ukraine play, and they are indeed splendid on this all-American disk. They play aggressively and with great sense of ensemble. Theodore Kuchar is true to the score and brings out all the important elements for a truly dramatic reading. If you are wanting to experience some different, and in some cases, important American music, this recording is recommended.