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George Antheil: The Brothers

Antheil / Nelsen / Dazeley / Bochumer Sym / Sloane
Release Date: 03/29/2011 
Label:  Cpo   Catalog #: 777545-2   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  George Antheil
Conductor:  Steven Sloane
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 54 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

ANTHEIL The Brothers Steven Sloane, cond; Rebecca Nelsen ( Mary ); Ray M. Wade Jr. ( Abe ); William Dazeley ( Ken ); E. Mark Murphy ( Jim ); Piotr Prochera ( Ron ); Bochum SO CPO 777 545-2 (54:12 Text and Translation) Read more

One has to admire cpo’s thoroughness. This is the fifth CD that it has devoted to American composer George Antheil (1900–59), and the first that it has devoted to one of his (several) operas. (Have any of Antheil’s operas been recorded until now? No doubt someone will write in and tell me, if so!)

The Brothers is one of three one-act operas that Antheil composed in 1954. By this time, Antheil’s Wunderkind years as a self-styled “bad boy of music” were far behind him, and the success that he had enjoyed in the 1920s had become elusive. He now was reliant on film scores, of which he composed dozens, to put food on the table for his family, and to enable him to compose the concert (and stage) works that were his chosen medium in earlier decades.

According to Tilman Fischer’s exhaustively researched booklet note (almost a given with this label), the one-act operas received “positive, sometimes even enthusiastic reviews” but did not enter the repertoire. In fact, The Brothers was not performed in Europe until 2009, an occasion that was the basis for this recording.

Even after his bad-boy days waned, Antheil remained an inventive, talented composer. The problem with The Brothers is not so much with its music, but with its contrived plot and its sometimes clumsy, uninspired libretto—also Antheil’s work, I must add. This is a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel, set not long after World War II in a middle-class American kitchen. Mary and Abe, a married couple, share their house with Abe’s older brother Ken, lately returned from the war. Mary and Ken had been attracted to each other before the war, and Ken signals to Mary that he retains a romantic interest in her—an interest that Mary reciprocates but decisively discourages. Mary’s rejection angers Ken, who soon is revealed to be an escaped prisoner who had turned traitor and brutally interrogated his army comrades. Two of those comrades, Jim and Ron, come looking for him. Finally cornered by the two of them, and unhinged by jealousy, Ken stabs Abe. Jim then shoots Ken, but it is a grazing wound to the forehead, and Ken thus receives the Biblical mark of Cain. Mary cradles Abe’s body, and as the curtain falls, returns to her Bible, where earlier in the opera, she had been reading about Cain and Abel.

The Brothers , then, rivals even The Medium in its almost laughable lack of subtlety. The difference between Antheil and Menotti, however, is that Menotti had keen theatrical instincts, whereas Antheil’s were not as strong. The murder is anticlimactic, as if Antheil had shot all of his arrows earlier in the opera. Antheil telegraphs the opera’s plot to us in its opening moments, and so the suspense is weakened even further. There’s also the clumsy device of making Mary blind, but not obviously so until it is convenient for the plot, and Antheil’s libretto sounds, at times, like the work of a college freshman. There are some bright musical episodes here, particularly in the arias for Mary and Ken, and the music is at least as good throughout as it is in some of Menotti’s lesser efforts. For that, The Brothers is worth a listen, particularly if you have enjoyed Antheil’s other work. It is, however, too flawed a work, dramatically, to hold a permanent place in the repertoire.

If The Brothers does not convince, it is not because of the current performers, who work hard at their assigned tasks. Lyric soprano Rebecca Nelsen is a lovely, sweet-toned, yet dramatically apt Mary, and tenor Ray Wade is believable and appealing as her husband. As the murderous brother, baritone William Dazeley is as subtle as Antheil allows him to be, and he brings a handsome voice to the proceedings. Tenor E. Mark Murphy and baritone Piotr Prochera (the only non-native English-speaker in the cast) sing well but cannot avoid the woodenness inherent in their roles. In the pit, conductor Steven Sloane is sensitive to the singers and ably moves the drama forward, although he cannot hide Antheil’s stop-and-go inspiration. The engineering is vivid—so vivid, in fact, that the bus horn in the first scene repeatedly startled me.

FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle
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Works on This Recording

The Brothers, opera in 1 act, W. 226 by George Antheil
Conductor:  Steven Sloane
Period: Modern 
Written: 1954 
Venue:  Ruhrcongress Bochum 
Length: 4 Minutes 7 Secs. 

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