The Genesis Suite: LSO/Rattle review – the most fascinating work you've never heard of

Barbican, London
With Stravinsky and Schoenberg among its composers, Simon Rattle made a convincing case for this stirring collaborative work

This was the UK premiere of The Genesis Suite – on paper, perhaps the most fascinating musical work you’ve never heard of. Imagine a musical game of consequences, played in 1945, started off by Schoenberg and finished by Stravinsky. Both were among the many composers who had fled Nazi Europe for the US. The lucky ones found that there was money to be made in Hollywood, but many others were broke and unable to get commissions. And so composer Nathaniel Shilkret, himself a second-generation Jewish immigrant, took a break from writing film scores to plan a collaborative seven-part work with two benevolent purposes – on one hand, to galvanise American morale with a stirring musical work accompanying a narration of the book of Genesis, on the other, to provide refugee composers with paid work. The remaining four composers to comprise this magnificent seven were Alexandre Tansman, Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Ernst Toch.

Everything about the project shows Shilkret to be admirably pragmatic, from the ordering of the tracks on the ensuing record release – his own Creation section first rather than Schoenberg’s Prelude, which he thought, probably correctly, would put off the record-buying public – to his attempts to keep Schoenberg and Stravinsky, who loathed each other, from meeting at the premiere.

He had no illusions that he was putting together a great work of art – and he wasn’t. Schoenberg’s Prelude is an evocative piece, beginning as something amorphous that gains texture, shape and rhythmic focus, but once past this there’s a lot of film music by numbers, and Stravinsky’s Babel episode, sounding largely telegrammed in, is an oddly downbeat ending. Yet even the hackwork is skilfully done all round, and there are inspired flashes everywhere, from the murky, atmospheric trills as the mist rises on Tansman’s Eden, to the contemplative start of Toch’s Rainbow episode, the cellos channelling the beginning of Wagner’s Parsifal.

The LSO’s presentation, put together by Gerard McBurney and conducted with whopping conviction by Simon Rattle made it all into a meaty experience. McBurney and projection designer Mike Tutaj took the idea of people being cast out – from Eden, from Europe 80 years ago, from somewhere else tomorrow – and overlaid the music and narration with constantly changing imagery: idealised Americana and pictures of bucolic farm life jostling with old newsreels or photos of protests from only last year. The screen stretched across the top of the stage, and though at times the bombardment of images distracted it also offered thoughtful alternative commentary. World leaders from Carter to Gorbachev to Obama signed their own covenants during the Rainbow episode, but this didn’t make the scenes of unrest or ecological devastation subside.

Sir Simon Rattle introduces the Genesis Suite.
Sir Simon Rattle introduces the Genesis Suite. Photograph: Mark Allan

The spoken aspect was sometimes nervy; the four narrators (Simon Callow, Helen McCrory, Sara Kestelman and Rodney Earl Clarke) were placed in pairs very far apart, leading to problems of synchronicity, with each other and with the music. But Rattle was very much in control, and he, the orchestra and the London Symphony Chorus made a convincing case for it all.

There followed a blistering account of the Concerto for Orchestra by Bartók – another refugee, who would have contributed a Genesis movement but for his declining health. With Rattle in charge, the LSO is regaining its distinctiveness, not only in its sound but in what it chooses to play – exactly what it and its audience needs.

Contributor

Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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