This is a great chance to check out one of the least heard but most notorious works of...
John Armstrong 2002-11-20
He called himself 'The Bad Boy of Music'. George Antheil was an American concert pianist and composer who made his mark in Paris in the 1920's as a genuine enfant terrible, courting controversy and working hard for his notoriety. Antheil's Paris debut was a riot - literally - and his reputation was sealed by a single work, Ballet Mécanique, which demanded a futuristic ensemble of pianos, percussion, electric buzzers and aeroplane propellers... and it's great to have it back on record and at budget price, too.
It's one of those works it seems everyone's heard of but never actually listened to; the only disappointment is that what we have here is Antheil's revised version, which makes more reasonable demands than the original - only four pianos, two propellers and two electric bells! It's hard to tell what all the fuss was about back in 1926; musically this is hardly the toughest thing you'll be asked to get your ears around, rhythmically it's engaging and highly danceable, and with the original excesses tamed, the Ballet Mécanique comes across as quirky rather than controversial.
So you'll probably buy this new cd for the famous Ballet, but the reasons you'll want to return to it come afterwards. There's the Serenade for String Orchestra, which feels like Dag Wiren crossed with Shostakovich; then the tiny 12-minute Symphony for Five Instruments (one of Antheil's own favourites) which sounds like an excellent piece of newly-discovered neo-classical Stravinsky... and finally Antheil's Concert for Chamber Orchestra, written just before he returned to America after a slump in popularity.
Spalding and his Philadelphians are feisty enough in the Ballet, refined and reflective in the other works. This is a great chance to check out one of the least heard but most notorious works of the 20th century... and afterwards you can revel in some genuinely interesting, almost unknown chamber music. Good notes too: it's a steal.
Andrew McGregor - presenter of CD Review on Radio 3