In its American Classics series Naxos has a cycle of Antheil Symphonies and other works ongoing, with the young conductor Theodor Kuchar leading the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. The Fourth and Sixth Symphonies appear on the first issue in that cycle, along with a short work called McKonkey's Ferry, and in all those works the voice of Shostakovich can be heard. Here, in the First, from 1923 when the composer was twenty-three, no such influence can be discerned, and neither does the work in any substantial way sound immature. Already Antheil had developed a sure sense of orchestration, if not of style. This work, in fact, sounds as though it contains a variety of influences, from the music of Les Six (he was living in France at the time he wrote this symphony) to that of Stravinsky.
The work is interesting, to be sure, but for all its seeming maturity does not rise to the level of his later symphonies. At least its colors and changing moods point the way to his career as a successful film composer in Hollywood a couple of decades later.
The Sixth (1947-48) is the more substantial work here and not only shows the influence of Shostakovich but of Prokofiev as well, especially in the second movement. The excellent notes, by Eckhardt van den Hoogen, point out these musical ties. This is a powerful work that seethes with tension throughout, even in the haunting Larghetto central panel. The finale is pure energy and color. The symphony sounds little like the American music from the time, but instead divulges Antheil's rather cosmopolitan nature. He was not afraid to associate his style with that of other composers, and was apparently content to go against the grain in a variety of ways.
Archipelago is a rumba that was later reworked into the composer's Second Symphony as its third movement. It's clever and colorful, and makes a decent filler, not least because it showcases the Gershwinian side of Antheil.
The performances here are excellent and young Hugh Wolff demonstrates a firm grasp on Antheil's music. Does he offer a better Sixth than Kuchar on Naxos? That's the burning question, especially amid the irony that Naxos now distributes cpo discs. Both conductors share overall timings that are close (26:04 for Kuchar and 25:48 for Wolff), but their individual movements vary considerably. I would say Wolff is more fluent and smoother, but that Kuchar, rawer and more intense, is in the end the better choice. Besides, his couplings are far better.
Still, for those interested in Antheil, this CD is well worth knowing. The performances by the Frankfurt players are excellent and Wolff's readings are convincing. The sound is vivid and, as suggested above, the copious notes are most informative.