Classical Lost and Found
Bob McQuiston
May 14, 2014

With this audacious release BMOP/sound is the first to give us a modern day hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.0), recording devoted to one of the most off the wall works ever composed by a twentieth century American. His name was George Antheil (1900-1959, see the newsletter of 8 June 2011), and the piece is his Ballet pour instruments mécaniques et percussion more commonly known as Ballet Mécanique (1925). Written while he was living in Paris, it was to accompany a Dadaist film of the same name, and is by today's standards a sonic happening.

At 1,240 measures in length, and full of complex frenetic rhythms reflected in more than 600 time-signature changes, the composer was never forthcoming with any practical guidance as to tempos. Consequently those have varied widely in performances down through the years.

This plus frequent atonal arpeggios, massive tone clusters, and repeated phrases auguring the minimalists (see the newsletter of 21 October 2013) make for a cacophony of sound! It's the demon offspring of the newlyweds in Stravinsky's Les Noces (1923) along with evanescent melodic bits, many of which are borrowed from jazz (see the newsletter of 22 November 2010) and ragtime.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg considering it's scored for what could qualify in the Guinness Book of Records as the strangest "instrumentarium” ever conceived. To wit, sixteen player pianos (pianolas) -- Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) eat your heart out! -- two regular ones, three xylophones, four bass drums, tam-tam, and some electrically powered devices. These include seven bells/buzzers, three motor-driven propellers and a siren, which bring to mind Malcolm Arnold's (1921-2006) Grand Grand Overture (1956) with its three vacuum cleaners and electric floor polisher!

Suffice it to say that back in the 1920s it was impossible to synchronize all those pianolas. Accordingly only one was used along with several conventional pianos for the 1926 Paris premiere. This was a scandalous success that made the 1913 riotous first performance of Stravinsky's (1882-1971) The Rite of Spring look like a "Teddy Bears' Picnic." It immediately brought Antheil considerable fame in Europe, but an over-hyped, disastrous 1927 Carnegie Hall performance got him branded in American classical circles as the Bad Boy of Music. Consequently the piece was never done again in his lifetime.

However, George never gave up on it, and in 1953-4 he made some drastic revisions in essence creating an entirely different work. This included reorganizing as well as shortening some sections -- it went from almost half an hour to a little over fifteen minutes -- eliminating the pianolas, increasing the conventional pianos to four, and augmenting the percussion. In retrospect his efforts were well spent as this version has been performed several times since his death.

Then in 1989 American conductor Maurice Peress (b. 1950) recreated and recorded the Carnegie Hall concert version (see Nimbus 2567). But the middle 1990s saw the development of a system whereby multiple pianolas could be synchronized, making the piece as originally envisioned possible.

Consequently in 2000 the Electronic Music Foundation released a CD of it (EMF 020) utilizing sixteen Yamaha Disklaviers. Then in 2001 our performers here followed suit performing that version of it in Boston's Symphony Hall. The year 2009 saw them make this recording across the street in the New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall. However, there was only enough room on stage for eight Disklaviers, but with all the clatter and minimalistic repetition you'll never know the difference!

This is a case where the music literally speaks for itself with the work [T-2] generally falling into three "scenes". The opening one gets off to a clangorous start [00:01] with the "sirenist" periodically surfacing [00:49, 01:43, 03:23, 04:51]. A hammering ding-dong piano episode follows [05:53], giving way to a relatively subdued section [07:13]. But chaos returns with the beginning of the next scene [07:21], which has more pounding bravura keyboard passages and sirenic ululations.

A perky theme [14:34] tries to break through the din, but is overtaken by a mind-numbing repetitious episode [15:22-19:53]. Then just when you think you're ready to scream, there's a crazed tam-tam, bass-drum-reinforced "calling all keyboards” cadenza [19:54].

This ends in an outlandish siren diminuendo and pianissimo electric bell pedal point [21:33] that bridges into the final scene [21:39], which begins with a case of piano hiccups. There are some refreshing silences between them followed by a dyspeptic bell [21:45] and buzzers [22:19]. Then the piece concludes with virtuosic keyboard spasms [22:59], a rueful howl from the siren [25:07], and a machine gun pianola episode [25:24] terminating in a bass-drum-accented riff [26:23] -- Take two aspirin and call us in the morning!

Like that illustrious Carnegie concert mentioned above this release begins with the original 1925 version of Antheil's A Jazz Symphony for Solo Piano and Jazz Band [T-1], which is a tuneful respite from the foregoing work. It’s all the more colorful for some brash "bad-boy" moments, which would unfortunately vanish when he changed the instrumentation and cut it by about half in 1955 (see CPO 777109).

Originally intended for Paul Whiteman's (1890-1967, see 28 February 2012) second Carnegie Hall "Experiment in Modern Music" concert -- the first introduced the world to Gershwin's (1898-1937) Rhapsody in Blue (1924, see 31 March 2011) -- it's in essence an infectious one movement piano concerto. Generally falling into three sections, Antheil frequently borrows tidbits from Joplin (1868-1917) and Stravinsky, as well as popular tunes of the day.

After an invigorating tango-flavored big band opening [00:02], the piano makes a dramatic entrance [00:18] playing a frenetic cheeky theme (FC) [01:22] vaguely reminiscent of the opening motif in Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (1911-3). FC then becomes the subject of a succeeding wild episode that could accompany one of Laurel and Hardy's zanier comedies!

Next there's a more subdued passage [02:34] with a reflective piano, sleepy tuba, and plucky banjo that alludes to FC [03:09]. The music then takes on a mécanique persistence in the mesmerizing middle section [03:50] that has wailing winds [07:23] and more banjo hinting at FC [08:32].

This stops suddenly, and after a short caesura we get the finale [09:31], where the piano gives us a lovely 20s merry-go-round-like waltz (TM) [10:09]. It's picked up by the orchestra [10:38], after which there's a series of rapid piano scales, wind trills and more subdued references to early Stravinsky [11:09, 11:30]. Then TM makes a radiant reappearance [12:32], and the symphony ends in "bad-boy" discord [12:56].

Ballet Mécanique being one of the most madcap works ever written and subject to a variety of "instrumentariums", it's hard to compare past performances of it. But rest assured this one from conductor Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project is tops. What's more, their rendition of A Jazz Symphony is by far the best of the few 1925 versions currently available on disc.

Made at the New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall, Boston, the recordings are excellent with the CD and SACD stereo tracks projecting a wide moderately deep soundstage in an ideally reverberant acoustic. All that percussion including the many keyboard instruments populating the ballet seems well apportioned from left to right. As for the symphony the solo piano is stage left, and arguably might have been more effective in the center as is usually the case with concertos.

The SACD multitrack moves the listener into a forward-center orchestra seat and provides some mécanique backwash from the rear speakers. A good balance is maintained between the various instruments in all three play modes, which is saying a great deal considering the aberrant assemblage of them in the ballet.

The instrumental timbre is musically appealing throughout the symphony. However, when Antheil turns all those pianos loose in the ballet, it's understandably clamorous with coruscating mids and highs, particularly on the CD track. At the other end of the sound spectrum, the lows remain well controlled in all three play modes even with those four bass drums. Audiophiles are in for a sonic tsunami with this disc!