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Genesis Suite - A Musical Collaboration (1945)
Nathaniel SHILKRET Creation*
Alexandre TANSMAN Adam and Eve*
Darius MILHAUD Cain and Abel
Ernst TOCH The Covenant (The Rainbow)*
Sung in English
* Orchestrations reconstructed by Patrick Russ
Tovah Feldshuh, speaker
Barbara Feldon, speaker
David Margulies, speaker
Fritz Weaver, speaker
Isaiah Sheffer, speaker
Ernst Senff Chor/Sigurd Brauns
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Gerard Schwarz
Rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, December 2000, Deutschland Radio; narration: Clinton Studios, New York, April 2003. DDD
Milken Archive of American Jewish Music


On receiving this disc for review, I was intrigued. Here was a recording of music lost for decades, a recording of a collaboration between émigré composers with potentially searing political and religious overtones, written at a time of turmoil. Unfortunately, the music itself did not live up to my expectations. The term "collaboration" can only be applied loosely to the Genesis Suite, as each composer wrote in isolation from his colleagues and the result is inconsistent in idiom and lacks a musical through-line. The best movements, as one would expect, are those by Schoenberg, Milhaud and Stravinsky. The rest of the contributors turn out over-long passages of atmospheric but underdeveloped film music. Not to say that film music is not worth listening to, but none of the lesser composers featured here is in the Waxman/Steiner/Korngold league.

The suite begins with Schoenberg, whose tone-row prelude is not overly confronting and in fact is the most orderly representation of chaos one could imagine, finishing with a wordless chorus singing a C major of creation.

Shilkret (who commissioned the suite) follows the prelude with the first narrated movement, which relates the story of the Creation. Immediately we are in the sound-world of early science fiction films, with portentous stabs of brass used to heighten the drama of the narration, a mysterious wordless female chorus and singing lines in the violins which do not seem to go anywhere in particular. Similar comments apply to the following movement by Tansman, despite the differences in idiom.

Milhaud's Cain and Abel is altogether more assured than the preceding two movements. The writing is tauter - more developed than motivic. The movement features a lovely tune from about 1:06, which seems to be at odds with the immediately preceding narration of Cain's displeasure, but nonetheless falls sweetly on the ear.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco uses chromatic scales to create a sense of unease to underpin his retelling of Noah's flood. Toch, following him, continues Noah's story with a more concise and tuneful movement, which reflects the rainbow covenant in a brass chorale and a lovely horn motif.

Stravinsky then brings the piece to an end at Babel. His is a strange movement in which the chorus (wordless to this point) replaces the speakers as the voice of God and the little fugue that illustrates the building of the tower disintegrates into chaos. Schoenberg is reported in the booklet to have said that Stravinsky's movement "didn't end, it just stopped". He is right. It is a bemusing end to a bemusing movement and a bemusing suite.

Babel is itself an odd place to end the piece. One would expect a Genesis Suite by Jewish composers (Stravinsky being the one gentile contributor) to at least reach the story of Abraham and God's covenant with him and his descendants. The booklet notes indicate that contributions had also been requested from Bartók, Hindemith and Prokofiev. Perhaps they would have advanced the narrative. However, as a function of its times, there is perhaps something appropriate in ending at Babel. Out of the primordial chaos we rise in an arc like a rainbow and descend once more into the chaos, this time the chaos of humanity in conflict and confusion. An apt comment by refugee composers on a world torn apart by war?

The booklet notes are, as usual in this series, very detailed. This is especially important for this issue, where the music itself is less interesting than the circumstances of its composition. There is a lapse, though. The notes refer to four speakers: two men and two women. However, three male speakers are credited. The speakers are also not identified with the parts and movements that they read. It is easy enough to pick out Barbara Feldon for those of us who used to watch Get Smart, but it makes it impossible to identify which of the men is speaking at any one time. The speakers (identifiable or not) deliver their lines effectively, and the response of orchestra, chorus and conductor to the score is respectful and impressive. The sonics from the Berlin Philharmonic's old stamping ground, the Jesus Christus Kirche, are warm and clear.

Having looked as the mixed musical merits and the historical background, my question is: who would want to buy this disc? Completists of the Schoenberg, Stravinsky or Milhaud flavour will want to hear how their heroes approached this collaboration. Anyone interested in the other minor composers will also want to acquire and listen, although I imagine their numbers will be few. Perhaps the category of listener that will get the most out of this disc is the one who seeks to understand music within its historical and sociological context. None of this music approaches greatness, but perhaps the extra-musical considerations make it worth hearing. It might also be fun to play the piece to friends to see if they can pick the three big names among the lesser lights. However, this is not a disc to which I will return with any great frequency.

Tim Perry

see also review by Jonathan Woolf




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