This is my first encounter with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and I am mightily impressed. The music on this admittedly brief disc is performed with such verve and evangelical intensity that it makes the visit to George Antheil’s sadly underrated or arguably overrated world supremely worthwhile.
Heard here in its longer original version complete with banjos and heaven knows what else, you probably won’t have heard A Jazz Symphony sound quite like this before. Some passages sound like Stravinsky meets New Orleans jazz, and the whole thing is wonderfully loopy and given a performance to match.
There are a few alternative recordings around for these works. A Jazz Symphony can be found on an extensive Antheil programme on the CPO label (777109-2), with the North German Radio Philharmonic conducted by Eije Oue. This is an excellent performance but more plush and, well, symphonic, than this original version. The timing of this version, 8:03 when compared to the BMOP’s 13:14 is symptomatic of the remarkable differences between them. Crazy piano solos, exotic instrumentation and some fantastic cartoonish passages have been slashed from the later version, and it seems sadly sanitised as a result.
The Ballet Mécanique is one of Antheil’s most popular scores, and the booklet notes for this recording quote extensively from the composer’s own comments on the work, as well as having an extensive essay on the piece by Paul Lehrman.
Nimbus Records (see review) has the closest competitor to this BMOP disc, with both original versions of the same works here and the added bonus of Antheil’s Second Sonata and String Quartet No. 1 and the irrepressible Rex Lawson running his pianolas. The alternatives include an energetic one from the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra on Naxos (8.559060 – see review), and a less attractive version with four pianos from the Baynov-Piano-Ensemble on Ars Producktion (FCD368352) which makes the work sound more like Stravinsky’s Les Noces or even bits of Bartók’s Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion. Yes, it is Antheil’s unbelievable orchestration which makes this work stand out from the crowd, and the BMOP throw everything at it, from sirens through every kind of percussion and a truckload of pianos made to sound satisfyingly like the synchronised pianolas intended by the composer. Aaron Copland declared that the piece “outsacked the Sacre”. Lehrman sums it up as “relentlessly loud and cacophonous”, and this is indeed the only problem with this recording. Even with the best Super Audio system I could muster, there is so much going on that you can hardly call the sonic picture ‘transparent’, and I suspect overload distortion at some points when listening through plain stereo, though I am happy to have it proved that it was my own sound system which was at fault.
Despite technical issues and Antheil’s overcooked instrumentation there are some remarkable effects on this recording, and if you are up for a severe chunk of brutalist minimalism then this may well float your boat. The SACD sound is pretty spacey, but even a greater separation of instruments doesn’t disguise the overcrowding of the soundtrack – perhaps even emphasising it in some ways. If pushed to choose I would have BMOP’s wild Jazz Symphony and Maurice Peress’s Ballet Mécanique, and the sensible option is Nimbus NI 2567. If Super Audio and a freshly bruising experience is what you seek this BMOP/Sound disc delivers plenty of wallop.