The first half of this concert brought back memories of Sir Simon Rattle’s glory days in Birmingham, when he could lead an audience in a conga during a performance of Bernstein’s Wonderful Town and still produce a supremely musical experience. Gone was the grand Berlin manner and the evening was all the more enjoyable for that. 

Sir Simon Rattle © Mark Allan/Barbican/LSO
Sir Simon Rattle
© Mark Allan/Barbican/LSO

It was a work called Genesis Suite that produced the high jinx. Receiving its first UK performance, it was composed in 1945 and was the brainchild of one Nathaniel Shilkret. His idea was to combine the work of high art composers exiled in Hollywood with those who were working in the film industry to produce something new and accessible, to recount the story of the Creation and its aftermath. Using the poetic King James Bible, the event would include a large orchestra, a chorus and an actor to speak the beautiful words. At its first performance it was dismissed as a failure and apart from a few outings has largely disappeared.

This evening’s version was complimented by four actors – Simon Callow, Sara Kestelman, Helen McCoy and Rodney Earl Clarke – with projected backdrops by Mike Turaj. The whole exotic affair was directed by Gerard McBurney and it certainly made for an eccentric but strangely moving concert experience. Having the famous words divided between several actors definitely helped to prevent the feeling of a sermon and made it more theatrical. The visual backdrop helped to make the Creation story feel more relevant to today’s troubled world.

Mike Tutaj's projections © Mark Allan/Barbican/LSO
Mike Tutaj's projections
© Mark Allan/Barbican/LSO

Musically, the eclectic nature of the piece is both its strength and its downfall. The mix of styles was supposed to make the work more accessible to a wider audience, but with Schoenberg and Stravinsky at their most severe bookending it that aim was largely stymied. The lush filling in the sandwich at times borders on cheap Hollywood cliché, but somehow here it generated its own logic and had a naive directness that seemed entirely appropriate. Shilkret composed the “Creation” movement itself and was the most overtly filmic, but also imaginatively effective. Alexandre Tansman composed the “Adam and Eve” section with a bit more grittiness, which makes it the most moving of the set. A concise and beautifully poised “Cain and Abel” was provided by Darius Milhaud. The most extravagant, almost in the fashion of Richard Strauss, is “The Flood” as depicted by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. In a similar vein, Ernst Toch’s “The Rainbow”, ends in a positive Hollywood glow, only to be brought down earth by Stravinsky with his beady-eyed “Babel”.

Rattle, the LSO and the LSO chorus treated the score with respect, never hamming up the more obvious sections. The integration of the actors worked well. The visuals were extended by interludes between the musical sections accompanied by an effective aural collage. Overall this was an entertaining and moving experience and all credit to Rattle and McBurney for resurrecting it.

Simon Callow and Helen McCrory © Mark Allan/Barbican/LSO
Simon Callow and Helen McCrory
© Mark Allan/Barbican/LSO

After this extravaganza even a Mahler would have seemed tame. The inclusion of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra seemed relevant only as it was composed at the same time. Rattle, announcing the work, emphasised the sadness behind the generally more approachable musical language that the composer adopted. A refugee (like most of the composers of the Genesis Suite) who was also dying of cancer, he had plenty of reasons to be sad. However, Bartók’s main impetus was to produce a work that would make money for his wife after he died. Its greatness lies in its ability to be positive against all the odds.

Rattle’s interpretation sometimes suffered from his view of the piece, dwelling on the darker elements and pushing the rubato in ways that were counterintuitive with its roots in Hungarian folk song. Only in the finale did he seem to let the LSO go and the final bars were truly joyous, as they should be.