ANTHEIL Symphonies Nos 4 & 5
In 1926 Aaron Copland declared that George Antheil ‘possesses the greatest gifts of any American now writing’. Ten years later, he added: ‘But something always seems to prevent their full fruition. Whether this is due to a lack of artistic integrity, or an unusual susceptibility to influences, or a lack of any conscious direction, is not clear.’ Those familiar with the two symphonies on this Chandos recording may nod vigorously at the phrase ‘susceptibility to influences’, as both bear striking resemblance to works by Shostakovich (in No 4) and Prokofiev (in No 5). Antheil is a fine melodist, however, with a sensitive feeling for harmonic colour, so I’d always rather enjoyed the music’s felicities even if their brazen borrowings had me shaking my head. Honestly, given the excellence of Hugh Wolff’s CPO disc of these same two symphonies, I wasn’t sure the music truly merited yet another recording. I was wrong.
Rather than placing these symphonies squarely in the mid-century mainstream, as Wolff does, John Storgårds revels in their idiosyncrasies, revealing a wealth of expressive detail I’d never heard before. In Storgårds’s hands, the stark and often macabre juxtapositions of the Fourth Symphony (1942) suggest that Antheil knew Mahler’s music very well, and not just the Mahlerian aspects of Shostakovich’s work. Storgårds doesn’t quite generate the white heat that Stokowski does in the broadcast recording of the 1944 premiere (Cala), but Storgårds’s emotionally involving interpretation is ultimately more satisfying.
The Fifth (1948) is only slightly less compelling. In the first movement, Storgårds’s measured tempo adds weight but often at the expense of bite – though the coda packs quite a wallop. The central Adagio is beautifully sustained and sounds (to my ears, at least) as much Czech as Russian, particularly in the ravishing passage beginning at 1'12". And, somehow, Storgårds manages to take much of the Prokofiev out of the finale. Here, it simply sounds ‘cosmopolitan’ – which Antheil (friend of Joyce, Pound, Hemingway, Picasso, among others) certainly was.
The disc also includes the recorded premiere of Over the Plains (1945), inspired by the composer’s visit to Texas. It’s pure Antheil in its unabashed weirdness, veering between rollicking cowboy music, Impressionist tone-painting and (near the end) what appears to be a homage to Mahler’s Seventh.
A brilliant recording all around, and an important one. Bring on the next instalment