Genesis Suite

Gerard Schwarz

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Genesis Suite Review

by Uncle Dave Lewis

In 1944 composer and conductor Nat Shilkret asked six famous composers based in Hollywood to collaborate on Genesis Suite, an anthology of pieces for chorus and orchestra illustrating narrated portions of the Book of Genesis. Premiered November 18, 1945, in Los Angeles, the Genesis Suite was also recorded shortly after, fortunately for posterity's sake as the full score was later consumed in a fire. This disc in Naxos' Milken Archive American Jewish Music series attempts to recover this ambitious program, utilizing surviving score material combined with transcriptions from the recordings made by Patrick Russ. Conductor Gerard Schwarz leads the Berliner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester, Sigurd Brauns directs the Ernst Senff Choir, and a star-studded lineup, including actresses Barbara Feldon and Tovah Feldshuh, handle the narration. Everyone does a fine job with this piece, particularly in Schoenberg's difficult Prelude.

As a whole, the Genesis Suite is not the sum of its best parts. Shilkret insisted that each composer work out a literal musical depiction of the action, a condition only Igor Stravinsky resisted. Genesis Suite is not so much a compilation of the combined efforts of the great Los Angeles-based composers of the 1940s as it is a series of examples of these same musicians working outside their natural idiom. The narration, usually delivered in slow, measured cadences, cannot help but sound pompous. Darius Milhaud, in Cain and Abel, is the only one of these composers to integrate the narration into the rhythm of the music, and his approach may have in some way stimulated Schoenberg toward what was realized in A Survivor from Warsaw. Yet Castelnuovo-Tedesco's setting of The Flood wanders into uncomfortable pictorialism not germane to his style, and some elements are predictable; for example, the departure of the animals from Noah's ark elicits a rigorous fugal statement from the orchestra in Ernst Toch's The Covenant.

The Genesis Suite is an interesting project historically and is worth recording well once. Yet any interest and enthusiasm one may drum up in favor of this recording will be tempered by the number of times the listener will return to it, which will not be many.

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