"The Genesis Suite" SHILKRET: Creation. TANSMAN: Adam
and Eve. MILHAUD: Cain and Abel. CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO: Noah's
Ark. TOCH: The Covenant. STRAVINSKY: Babel. SCHOENBERG:
PISTON: Symphony No. 2.*
Janssen Symphony Orchestra of Los Angeles/Werner Janssen, cond. with
Chorus directed by Hugo Strelitzer and narration by Edward Arnold;
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
earned three Academy Award nominations. With Arthur Honegger, Darius
Milhaud had been one of the pioneer film composers in France, but Hollywood
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
sang more deeply. Unfortunately, the musical establishment had tuned
its ears to new voices. Toch never regained his European reputation,
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
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
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
Rushmore. Furthermore, he's a good actor and avoids hamming it up or
larding the narration with cinematic piety. The sound quality of the
the Angel -- cleaner, clearer, not so bass-heavy. Naxos's Genesis has
the best sound quality because it's stereo, but the performance, led
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
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,
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)