Antheil: Ballet mécanique and A Jazz Symphony performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project

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WORKS: Ballet mécanique (original 1924 version); A Jazz Symphony (original 1925 version)
PERFORMER: Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose


On 19 June 1926 the not yet 26-year-old American composer George Antheil created a sensation with his Ballet mécanique in Paris. It combines the changing rhythms and obsessive repetitions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with the machine-age noise-making of the Italian Futurists, putting pianos alongside player-pianos, and pitting xylophones and drums against electric bells, siren and aeroplane propellers. This recording goes further than any before it in recreating the work’s original version, not just as performed in 1926 but as shown in the composer’s manuscripts. Antheil wanted multiple player-pianos in unison, but was thwarted because the technology to synchronise them didn’t exist: now, MIDI computer links do the job. And he wanted a faster overall speed than player-pianos could manage: possible, it turns out, with a judicious slowing-down for one passage. Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s performance vindicates Antheil’s conception, creating a thrilling wall of sound in unstoppable motion, till it’s halted by unexpected long silences.

The only other item is Antheil’s 1925 Jazz Symphony, an entertaining combination of jazz clichés, wild piano cadenzas and a banal waltz, recorded in an unhelpfully open acoustic. But if the playing time seems ungenerous, think of the value of all the editorial and technical preparation that’s gone into this Ballet mécanique.


Anthony Burton