ANTHEIL Ballet mécanique
The milieu into which George Antheil introduced his mid 1920s Ballet mécanique and A Jazz Symphony was already reverberating with the sounds of Stravinsky’s Les noces, Varèse’s Ionisation and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – composers who were considered Messiahs when Antheil was a mere ‘bad boy of music’.
Ballet mécanique reminds you that nothing dates faster than self-conscious visions of the future, especially compared to genuinely visionary scores such as Les noces or Ionisation, while Antheil’s Jazz Symphony proves no match for the graceful charms of Gershwin’s various symphonic jazz hybrids. On their 2005 CPO release, Eiji Oue and the NDR Radio Philharmonie made the fatal mistake of performing Antheil’s 1955 rewrite of A Jazz Symphony (CPO, 6/06), which ironed out its Heath Robinson structure and tamed the ill-behaved harmonic language of the original 1925 version as restored here by Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Even in this spunky, punky performance you’d be hard-pressed, in all honestly, to claim that the notes are memorable or fuelled by implacable internal logic – and so Rose, instead, goes for the high energy blow out.
Jittery energies derive in part from Antheil’s abrupt editing of material – his delight in letting his structure fall through trapdoors. Around the 7'00" mark we’re listening to Antheil looping note patterns shamelessly lifted from The Rite of Spring (the ‘Danse de la terre’ section) and then suddenly we’re not, as a salty trombone solo, underpinned by chugging banjo, parachutes us into a clone of Duke Ellington’s The Mooche. The Ballet pour instruments mécaniques et percussion (to give its full title) also freeloads off Stravinsky, with Antheil’s instrumentation of 16 player pianos, two regular pianos, three xylophones, seven electric bells, three propellers, a siren, four bass drums and tam-tam guaranteed to turn in a spectacle.
Cascading Ivesian piano clusters that tumble free of the ensemble in the Jazz Symphony form the base palette of Ballet mécanique. But whereas the symphony loses credibility when Antheil splices in a cornball romantic theme to provide contrast, Ballet mécanique is relentless in its monumental walls of sound built from bricks of meshed scales and arpeggios. Putting aside Antheil’s shortcomings as a composer, Rose’s achievement in differentiating compacted layers to let melodic fragments shine is masterful. This is the most accomplished Antheil disc around.