Ballet Mecanique CD, Import
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George Antheil's reputation as the Bad Boy of Music (the title of his fascinating autobiography) was earned largely with his Ballet Mécanique, written to accompany an abstract silent film by the artist Fernand Leger. It was composed for player pianos and percussion, with harsh, driving rhythms, and it caused the kind of riots in Paris that were useful to a composer's reputation. Today, that reputation may keep Antheil from being taken seriously. But when you hear the Ballet (as rescored in 1953 for an early mono recording) today, it's a substantial and exciting piece of music, formally tight and not at all hard on 21st century ears. The remainder of this program shows more of Antheil's range. The Serenade is a lovely piece of Americana, with a particularly touching slow movement. The Symphony and Concert owe much to Stravinsky's "neoclassical" style; both hold up very well. Spalding drives the Ballet hard, and it sounds more frenetic than that old mono recording, but the music can take the heat. This and the remaining performances are splendidly played by the excellent chamber orchestra, and the recording is clear, well-balanced, and realistic in sound. Another Naxos winner. --Leslie Gerber
The CD is titled after one of his better known works, "Ballet Mecanique." This and the other works on this CD are played nicely by the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Daniel Spalding.
The "Ballet Mecanique" was first performed in France in 1926, reputedly to good reviews. As the liner notes put it, "Notorious for its orchestra of pianos, percussion, electric buzzers, and aeroplane propellers, 'Ballet' was a summation of Antheil's involvement with futurism."
What of the "Ballet"> It is a very energetic piece, a dynamic work. It is easy to listen to and enjoy. It does use strange instruments (such as buzzers and propellers) and stranger combinations of instruments; one critic referred to this work as an example of "demented modernism."
Still, the energy of this piece is infectious. One can see this as in the tradition of Stravinsky (note what other reviewers say). Piano and percussion add an interesting element to the whole of the composition.
The middle segment becomes quieter, even contemplative. Then, the energy returns for a dramatic close. It's a bit different. I tend not to enjoy more experimental music, but this surely works for me!
Also on this CD are some of his other signature pieces, such as "Serenade for String Orchestra," "Symphony for Five Instruments," and "Concert for Chamber Orchestra."
Overall, I think that this is worth a listen, exposing the listener to one of America's more intriguing composers of the early part of the century.
The companion pieces are perhaps somewhat more conventional in character. The Serenade for Strings (1948) inhabits a sound world not too far removed from Prokofiev - perhaps with some of Shostakovich's sardonic wit, and certainly a sense of ominous ruminations beneath the generally buoyant surface. The Symphony for Five Instruments, on the other hand, predates Ballet Mécanique and is deeply indebted to Stravinsky, sounding very much like a counterpart to the latter's Symphonies of Wind Instruments, though Antheil adds some personal touches (especially in the middle movement); the main difference being that Antheil eschews Stravinsky's subtlety - where Stravinsky is sometimes sly, Antheil is almost naively straightforward. The Concert for Chamber Orchestra is rather Stravinskian as well, though even if it is clever in the way it combines and recombines element in a sharp, dry and emotionless language, it comes across as a bit formulaic and lacking in genuine inspiration.
As mentioned, the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra performs everything with verve and ebullience under Daniel Spalding. I suppose their approach is less of a "revel in the chaos"-type of approach, but their performances are nevertheless engaging as well as deeply illuminating in how they manage to reveal the inner workings of the music without losing sense of the bigger lines. It is all really deeply fascinating, and the sound quality is clear and dry - as it should be in this music. Strongly recommended.
So what about George Antheil (1900-1959)? Well, here we have a most unusually talented character. Besides work as a composer and pianist, he also mastered other disciplines and interests, writing on criminal justice, military history, and the explanatory role of endocrinology for criminal investigations, as well as patenting a torpedo guidance system and, with the actress Hedy Lamarr, a broad spectrum signal transmission system! His credentials of association with creative artists are also impeccable- in 1922 he went to Paris, where he met his idol Igor Stravinsky, as well as hanging out with Hemingway, Pound, Yeats, Picasso, and Man Ray, most of whom were apparently enthralled by his avant-garde music, which for them served as the soundtrack with which to advance their modernist manifesto.
So, finally onto Ballet Mécanique itself. This remains his most famous work, which I admit had a rather gimmicky appeal for me. After all, this is a symphony for aeroplane propellers, electric buzzers and numerous grand pianos! On its premier in Paris in 1926, the audience response was favourable, despite a leather strip flying into the audience, the propeller blowing off hats and toupées, and one audience member attempting to protect himself from the aural onslaught with an umbrella (wish I could have witnessed it)! The following year however, at Carnegie Hall in New York, his masterpiece was met with amused derision, and the discerning elite refused him their stamp of approval as a serious composer. Still, in the early days Antheil's radical work often sparked riots amongst audiences, resulting in his sobriquet as the `Bad Boy of Music' (which served as the title of his 1945 autobiography).
"Rhythmic vitality, harmonic pungency, and melodic vigor" characterise his work, and putting the gimmickry aside, it's worth reminding ourselves that a conference honoring his legacy was held in his hometown of Trenton, New Jersey in 2003, and that this rendition of his work was issued by Naxos in 2001 -all of which testifies to his enduring legacy (he does not deserve to be forgotten). Antheil's status as a great composer has surely been secured, and besides performance of the 1953 revised version of the Ballet Mécanique, this album also includes the relatively less radical Serenade for String Orchestra, Symphony for Five Instruments, and Concert for Chamber Orchestra, all of which are also fine pieces. And if anyone remembers the Walter Cronkite-narrated CBS documentary `The 20th Century', which ran from 1957-1970, then you have already heard some of the work of Antheil, who besides shocking audiences with bold musical innovations, later resorted to scoring films in order to earn a living. Far from cacophonous, Ballet Mécanique is an incredible piece, essential for anyone interested in 20th century composition (and by the way, the clockwork penguins on the cover seem peculiarly apt when one considers the fusion of mechanical and organic that characterises the instrumentation for Ballet Mécanique).