Monday, June 12, 2017

George Antheil - Ballet Mécanique (version 1953); etc. (Daniel Spalding)


Composer: George Antheil
  1. Ballet Mécanique (revised 1953)
  2. Serenade for String Orchestra, No. 1: I. Allegro
  3. Serenade for String Orchestra, No. 1: II. Andante molto
  4. Serenade for String Orchestra, No. 1: III. Vivo
  5. Symphony for Five Instruments (second version): I. Allegro
  6. Symphony for Five Instruments (second version): II. Lento
  7. Symphony for Five Instruments (second version): III. Presto
  8. Concert for Chamber Orchestra

Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra
Daniel Spalding, conductor
Date: 2001
Label: Naxos




George Antheil's infamous Ballet Mécanique exists in (basically) three versions, the first of which (for lots of synchronized mechanical pianos and percussion) has only recently been premiered and recorded for the first time by the UMass Lowell Percussion Ensemble. The version that scandalized Paris audiences in 1926 actually was an arrangement for lots of normal pianos and percussion, and this version was recreated on a long out-of-print MusicMasters disc. Daniel Spalding and his intrepid ensemble take on the composer's 1953 revision for the time-honored (via Stravinsky and Orff) ensemble of four pianos and percussion, an arrangement that reduces the score by about half while preserving the most important thematic material. It's a fine work in its own right, more conventionally "listenable" than the early versions, and it's easy to understand Antheil's desire to give the music wider currency. Spalding and his ensemble play very well indeed, and the recording balances the various special effects (airplane propellers and electric bells) in such a way that they register without ever becoming totally obnoxious.

You can't help but feel sorry for Antheil's subsequent career misfortunes. After all, no one today seriously castigates Stravinsky for not writing more Rites of Spring, and we can only view with bemusement the cold shoulder given Antheil's post "Mécanique" production, especially considering the fact that even this notorious work was as ignored in performance as the rest of his music. Antheil clearly recognized that, like Stravinsky's "Rite", the Ballet Mécanique was an artistic dead end, but as this disc proves, he wrote plenty of fine music both before and after it. Take the Serenade for String Orchestra No. 1. Here's a delightful piece, humorous and lyrical, full of rhythmic energy and good tunes. The Symphony for Five Instruments very cleverly balances an unusual ensemble of viola, flute, bassoon, trumpet, and trombone, and will appeal to anyone who enjoys the chamber music of Poulenc. The Concert for Chamber Orchestra (actually a wind octet), also reeks of Stravinsky and Les Six, but you'd be hard pressed to find anything by that septet of composers precisely like it.

In short, Antheil's neglect is completely unjustified, as this and other fine recordings now appearing on Naxos and CPO clearly demonstrate. As with the Ballet, Spalding and the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra play these diverse other works with affection and relish. Naxos provides them with excellent recorded sound too. A winner in every respect, this disc should go far toward supporting the ongoing rehabilitation of this seminal figure in 20th century music.

-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday

More reviews:

George Antheil (July 8, 1900 – February 12, 1959) was an American avant-garde composer, pianist, author and inventor whose modernist musical compositions explored the modern sounds – musical, industrial, mechanical – of the early 20th century. Spending much of the 1920s in Europe, Antheil returned to the US in the 1930s, and thereafter spent much of his time composing music for films and, eventually, television. A man of diverse interests and talents, Antheil was constantly reinventing himself. He wrote magazine articles, an autobiography, a mystery novel, newspaper and music columns.


Daniel Spalding (born in Kansas, USA) is a American conductor. For over twenty-two years, Spalding has garnered international acclaim as Music Director of the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra. His founding and twenty year leadership of the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra has won him international acclaim through extensive tours in twenty-nine American States, Europe, South America, Bermuda and Mexico as well as a series of award-winning and critically praised recordings. Spalding is currently Music Director of the newly-formed New Jersey Capital Philharmonic in Trenton (since 2013).


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