Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Milhaud, Schoenberg, Shilkret, Stravinsky, Tansman, Toch
Genesis Suite [UK premiere]
Concerto for Orchestra
Helen McCrory, Simon Callow, Rodney Earl Clarke & Sara Kestelman (narrators)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle
Gerard McBurney – Creative Director
Mike Tutaj – Projection Design
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 13 January, 2018
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Written about far more than it has been heard, the Genesis Suite (1945) is a product of that brief yet potent phase at the end of the Second World War when a new beginning seemed possible in all senses. Composer, conductor and cultural entrepreneur, Nathaniel Shilkret (1889-1982) had such in mind when commissioning this by no means blithely optimistic concept from several composers based in America (all except himself being émigrés could hardly be coincidental). Premiered in Los Angeles and seldom revived (but commercially recorded twice), it was eminently suitable for inclusion in the Barbican’s ongoing The Art of Change series and was given as an elaborate mixed-media presentation featuring the London Symphony Orchestra and Simon Rattle.
One of Shilkret’s guiding principles was that the project be suitable for the large non-specialist radio audience then to the fore of American culture, hence its relative accessibility in stylistic terms. The inevitable exception was Schoenberg – who, replacing an ailing Bartók at short notice, came up with a ‘Prelude’ whose glimpsing of order out of chaos is couched in his late idiom where tonal and serial possibilities maintain uneasy accord. It prepares ideally for ‘Creation’, in which Shilkret himself relates the Seven Days via music descriptively effective for all that it can verge on parody. Something which Alexandre Tansman does rather more subtly in ‘Adam and Eve’, its mixture of impressionist and neoclassical elements well-suited to conveying the fall from Paradise. Darius Milhaud then contributes ‘Cain and Abel’, a short but dramatic section such as innocent ears might have mistaken for Martinů, before the most extended section of ‘The Flood (Noah’s Ark)’ – its lengthy narrative set by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco with sure technical skill but precious little that is memorable. Ernst Toch is fortunately up to the challenge with ‘The Rainbow (The Covenant)’, continuing the flood narrative through to its culmination in music whose plangent modality and tensile fugal writing similarly bring about the Suite’s climax. Something that Stravinsky’s ‘Babel’ might have been expected to achieve, were it not that this rather dutiful rehash from its composer’s then-recent pieces renders the tale of mankind’s hubris and divine retribution in pointedly underwhelming terms.
A concept effective almost in spite of itself ought to have responded positively to a lavish visual presentation. So it did up to a point, though the several decades of documentary footage that Gerard McBurney had assembled seemed intent on imposing an unwieldy full-circle sense of cohesion on what is a linear and, by definition, unfulfilled narrative; its relevance to the present one of metaphor rather than of concrete image, for all that Mike Tutaj’s projections against an overhead backdrop lacked nothing in graphic immediacy. Rattle’s direction (of music by several composers he is unlikely to conduct elsewhere) was perceptive, and the LSO’s playing assured; as was the contribution of the London Symphony Chorus, even if assembling the male singers directly in front of the audience for their final warning proved more effective visually than aurally. More problematic was having four speakers to deliver the narrative, their voices well-contrasted but jarring as to rhythmic emphasis and too often uncoordinated when speaking in unison to represent God – when the rather too up-front amplification tended to blur rather than aid clarity.
An audio-visual element was present at the start of the second half, with a recording (by Simon Callow) of a moving letter from Bartók to Joseph Szigeti while working on his Concerto for Orchestra (1943). Whether the retaining of various forest-scapes on which to project the title of each of its movements enhanced the listening experience is arguable, though this never undermined what was a persuasive and finely realised account of a piece which Rattle has had in his repertoire from the beginning. Thus the often sectional contrasts of the ‘Introduzione’ were drawn into a powerful and emotionally cumulative design, and then the capering dialogue in ‘Presentando le coppie’ was rendered without affectation (save a slightly lurching transition after the central chorale. The ‘Elegia’ had emotional heft yet eschewed undue emoting, while the ‘Intermezzo interrotto’ was skilfully negotiated so that its disparate ideas melded into an eventful whole. Others have brought more panache to the ‘Finale’, but the precision and tensile response of the LSO was its own justification and rounded off a performance the more impressive for its absence of inhibition.