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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Genesis Suite (1945)
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)

Prelude [5.53]
Nathaniel SHILKRET (1889-1982)

Creation [11.07]
Alexandre TANSMAN (1897-1986)

Adam and Eve [11.32]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)

Cain and Abel [4.46]
Mario CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO (1895-1968)

The Flood [11.03]
Ernest TOCH (1887-1964)

The Covenant (The Rainbow) [5.36]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)

Babel [5.37]
Tovah Feldshuh, Barbara Feldon, David Margulies, Fritz Weaver and Isaiah Sheffer (speakers)
Ernst Senff Choir
Radio Symphony Orchestra of Berlin/Gerard Schwarz
Recorded Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin, December 200. Narration NYC, April 2003
NAXOS 8.559552 [55.38]

 

 

It was Nathaniel Shilkret, a well-known Victor recording conductor, who instigated the Genesis project. This was to present a musical representation of the Bible in the form of short works from musical contributors. Since the Los Angeles area was blessed with émigrés and there were fees involved – and as the project was also part of a wider series of symposia by expatriate artists such as Thomas Mann – volunteers were not few in coming forward. The roster was astonishing, starting with Schoenberg and Stravinsky, long time opponents, and including Toch, Milhaud, Shilkret himself, Tansman and Castelnuovo-Tadesco.

The schema was a prelude, Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark, The Covenant, and Babel. The arch enemies Schoenberg and Stravinsky began and ended the sequence. Schoenberg’s Prelude is the only one without narrator. His ordered exposition of Chaos – a tone row naturally – employs extremes of sonority and is made richer by his use of a double fugue. It’s the most concisely impressive of all the pieces, not least because it’s the only one that could be envisaged as having any kind of independent life. From then on I’m afraid things get rather sticky and I was more than once reminded of Delius’s comment that Parry would have set the whole Bible to music if he’d had time. Shilkret gives us Creation, MGM style; actually the notes are spot-on when they talk of a 1950s sci-fi film score. Themes soar, the brass is noble and rounded, the acoustic is weird and the Narrator – there are actually five all told and called, to be precise, speakers – sonorously intones the biblical text. I’m afraid I thought of Charlton Heston.

Tansman contributes a generic, atmosphere laden Adam and Eve, all eleven excruciating minutes of it. Still, he’s had one good idea, which is to pinch some Mussorgsky and the result is pure film music, not least the music for serpent and the episodic weave. I was curious to see what Milhaud would make of Cain and Abel – all five minutes’ worth – and it’s martial, trumpet-rich but rather filmic; not a bad thing, necessarily. Castelnuovo-Tadesco (Noah’s Ark) has obviously suffered a well-known West Coast affliction, a case of the Franz Waxmans. This is frankly hilarious stuff – and the composer adds to the heightened realism by making eleven minutes feel like the 150 days Noah spent in the Ark. By contrast Toch uses fugal procedure with care and his orchestration seems warmly effusive. I say "seems" because his orchestrations, as well as those by Shilkret and Tansman have had to be reconstructed by Patrick Russ. Particularly clever is that Toch feeds his fugue behind the interminable narrative voices whereas the others have gone in for generic washes of string colour. Finally Stravinsky also uses some fugal passages and his is the most warmly and intelligently orchestrated, though it’s a brief contribution.

The performances tend to highlight the limitations of the majority of these pieces - a rigidity borne of Biblical text narration and limited expressive devices. It was interesting to read in the full and capacious notes that an early performance was recorded in a performance directed by Werner Janssen. In those early performances there was only one narrator. Here as I said we have five speakers, male and female, though whether this splitting of the authorial-narrative voice is a device to attempt inject spurious variety or not I wouldn’t care to speculate. It’s all done as well as it could be but whether you’ll listen to Genesis more than once I very, very much doubt. One final thing; according to the stern booklet notes the Ten Commandments aren’t Commandments at all, which is a mistranslation – they’re actually the ten articles of the Sinaitic covenant. I suggest you remember that the next time you covet your neighbour’s ass.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Rob Barnett

 



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