"The Genesis Suite"   SHILKRET:  Creation.  TANSMAN:  Adam and Eve.  MILHAUD:  Cain and Abel.  CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO:  Noah's Ark.  TOCH:  The Covenant. STRAVINSKY:  Babel.  SCHOENBERG: Postlude
PISTON: Symphony No. 2.*
Janssen Symphony Orchestra of Los Angeles/Werner Janssen, cond. with Chorus directed by Hugo Strelitzer and narration by Edward Arnold; *Boston Symphony Orchestra/G. Wallace Woodworth.
Pristine Audio PASC 306 TT: 76:12

Kunstmeisters and Kitschmeisters. By the late Thirties, Los Angeles had become home to the cream of Jewish and anti-Fascist intellectuals fleeing from Europe. Nathaniel Shilkret, conductor and at that time working for the studios as a film composer, got the idea of asking the most illustrious of them to compose movements of a collaborative work based on the Book of Genesis. Alexandre Tansman, Ernst Toch, and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco had also worked in the movies, often uncredited, although Tansman did earn a screen credit for the Rosalind Russell flick Sister Kenny and Toch eventually earned three Academy Award nominations. With Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud had been one of the pioneer film composers in France, but Hollywood used him sparingly. Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky tried to break into films, but no studio was interested, although producers loved announcing to the press that they were "considering" one or the other for their latest Prestige Project, thus trading off the cachet of their celebrity without actually having to take a real chance. At any rate, Shilkret was enough of a hustler to get up a performance and to make a recording with Edward Arnold as narrator. The recording, turned down by every major distributor, didn't sell very well. EMI acquired the rights to it years later, but for some reason couldn't use the Arnold narration. It advertised Arnold, but anybody familiar with the actor's deep, round tones knew immediately the voice wasn't his.

Shilkret likely pursued the project as a way to advance himself. He certainly had little respect for the men he worked with. Schoenberg, for example, had written an orchestral prelude, which Shilkret placed at the end of the recording. This allowed his piece to lead off the suite, which he justified by saying that his work had made a bigger hit with the audiences. He moved the two "difficult" composers to last in line, so his listeners could tune out early. The problem is that Schoenberg composed his Prelude with the idea in mind that it would lead to something else and wrote the end accordingly. In the Shilkret order, the music just peters out. Shilkret also issued instructions to "his" collaborators about the type of music he wanted from them, something very much like the typical Forties film scoring he provided. Tansman and Castelnuovo-Tedesco caved. Schoenberg and Stravinsky, thank God, largely ignored Shilkret. Milhaud and Toch to some extent modified their styles, but, thankfully, not to a fatal degree. When I first saw the word "Narrator," my heart sank, since narrator plus orchestra is probably my least-favorite genre, despite the rare examples of masterpieces. I usually feel either the music is so weak that it's unnecessary, as in the Shilkret, Tansman, and Castelnuovo-Tedesco movements, or the music is so good, the words get in the way, as in the Toch and the Milhaud. Schoenberg omitted the narrator altogether. With Babel and a characteristically elegant solution, Stravinsky actually found a way to convincingly integrate spoken word with music. I should note that the longer pieces are the weakest. Shilkret, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Tansman all run around ten minutes, while the others last roughly five.

Aside from the two acknowledged masterpieces, Babel and Schoenberg's Prelude, Toch's contribution interested me the most, in that it's not as chromatic or as tortured as he usually gets. Indeed, it sounds a little like Bloch. During the Thirties and the subsequent war, Toch had been too depressed to compose. He learned that the Nazis had wiped out the entire family he had left behind. The war's end got him writing again, and the new music sang more deeply. Unfortunately, the musical establishment had tuned its ears to new voices. Toch never regained his European reputation, although in the United States, he won a Pulitzer. I consider his neglect, especially in regard to his chamber music, a shame.

Speaking of neglect, Piston's Second Symphony comes from 1943. This performance, a broadcast for the Armed Forces, I believe was its second. G. Wallace Woodworth, known better as a choral director, turns out to be a capable conductor in a not-that-easy work, one which lacked both a performing tradition and a previous recording. Piston wrote a beautiful symphonic cycle, but since the Sixties, it hasn't received much in the way of performance or recording. The Second is both eloquent and elegant.

Pristine is known as an audiophile label. I think its incarnation of Schnabel's recorded Beethoven amazing. Both the Genesis and the Piston come, not from masters, but from actual records, and any digital cleanup is limited by the quality of the originals. All that said, Pristine's Andrew Rose has done a great job. I happen to have two other recordings of the Genesis Suite: one by Angel Records (Capitol/EMI) and another by Naxos. The Angel recording is essentially this one, with someone else (identified by Wikipedia as Ted Osborne) substituting for Arnold. Since the narration was recorded separately from the music, this substitution was possible, but definitely not desirable. It turns out that Arnold was a great reader of poetry, with a theater-trained voice that could have come from one of the heads on Mt. Rushmore. Furthermore, he's a good actor and avoids hamming it up or larding the narration with cinematic piety. The sound quality of the Pristine betters the Angel -- cleaner, clearer, not so bass-heavy. Naxos's Genesis has the best sound quality because it's stereo, but the performance, led by Gerard Schwarz, leaves much to be desired. He uses many narrators, for no good reason. Naxos could have saved itself a bundle by sticking with Fritz Weaver throughout. Furthermore, the orchestrations of many of these works were lost in a fire. The Stravinsky and Schoenberg scores escaped, thank goodness. Since then, others, particularly the Castelnuovo-Tedesco, have come to light. You avoid all this if you get the Pristine, my preference, because it uses the original recording. If you just want the Schoenberg and the Stravinsky, there are many other accounts that outdo Schwarz.

Woodworth's Piston, while interesting historically, has serious competition. Schwarz issued an okay version with the Seattle Symphony (now on Naxos). However, the best recording by far -- and a classic recording of American music -- is the young Michael Tilson Thomas directing the Boston Symphony (when I was hoping like mad he would succeed Steinberg; the conductorship went instead, of course, to Ozawa). This performance sets the roof on fire, and the DG sound quality excites you all by itself. In addition, you get Ives's Three Places in New England and Ruggles's Sun-treader, again in definitive performances. You can get this disc as an ArkivCD from www.arkivmusic.com, worth every penny.

S.G.S. (March 2012)