John Storgårds conducts Antheil’s Symphonies Nos 4 & 5

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LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Symphony No. 4 (1942); Symphony No. 5 (Joyous); Over the Plains
PERFORMER: BBC Philharmonic/John Storgårds


Long after his ground-breaking Ballet mécanique had won him fame and notoriety in 1920s Paris and New York, the American composer George Antheil turned with characteristic enthusiasm to the genre of the symphony. The Fourth – premiered by Leopold Stokowski in a coast-to-coast broadcast – was mostly written in 1942, and traces the progress of the Second World War through that year, beginning with the world in a state of tension and ending with a glimpse of future victory. The Fifth – first performed by Eugene Ormandy in Philadelphia – is a post-war piece from 1947/48, reflecting the ‘youthful optimistic joy’ of the American character. The two works aren’t easy to listen to straight off because of their bitty, episodic construction and their strong stylistic indebtedness to, respectively, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. But repeated hearings reveal the overall direction of each movement and the original musical mind beneath the borrowings.

John Storgårds treats this music with painstaking care, restoring deliberate ‘wrong notes’ expunged by earlier conductors in the Fourth, respecting all Antheil’s nuances of tempo variation, and – with the help of an excellent recording – balancing all the textures clearly. Even he can’t do much for the 1945 Over the Plains, a pale attempt to annexe the territory of Copland’s Rodeo. But there’s enough here to suggest that, if this series is to be continued, it will rival or even surpass Hugh Wolff’s fine series with the Frankfurt RSO on the CPO label as a definitive account of Antheil the symphonist.


Anthony Burton