Leonard Bernstein’s Mass
has had a most peculiar recorded history. When
the work was premiered in 1971, it was roundly criticized both
for its mixture of musical styles and its blasphemous text. The
work then seemed to lay dormant for more than thirty years. I
still have my LPs of the original recording, but never thought
much about going back to them. At the time I remember being impressed
with parts of the score, primarily the “Simple Song” and sections
that reminded me of the composer’s Chichester Psalms
far stronger work, I thought, and my favorite “serious” piece
of Bernstein’s. Now within the past few years there have been
at least three new recordings of Mass
causing a reassessment.
I have not heard the recordings by Kent Nagano (Harmonia Mundi)
or Kristjan Järvi (Chandos), both of which have received positive,
if mixed, reviews. I won’t go into the background of the score
here, as Simon Thompson has already done so in his highly laudatory
review of the Alsop recording on this website.
I will say, right off, however, that I also am extremely impressed with this new account and now understand this work better than ever before. Indeed, I find Mass
to be a very infectious piece and one that I have trouble getting out of my head. I never realized before how much of the score recalls West Side Story.
I doubt Mass
is Bernstein’s greatest masterpiece as some have recently thought, but I can say that it is a much better work than I gave it credit before. Oddly enough, what may have seemed out of date ten or twenty years ago, seems timely now. The themes of humankind’s destruction of its own kind and of other species play an important role in Mass
as does questioning the role of organized religion — with the right-wing evangelical movement’s influence on the political front. Now to the disc at hand.
Obviously, Bernstein’s recording remains the yardstick by which subsequent performances will be judged. Almost immediately the most notable difference is in the voice of the Celebrant. If one is used to the more straightforward singing of Alan Titus on the original recording, Jubilant Sykes’ style may seem “over the top” in its more dramatic presentation. His voice can change from beautifully soft singing to crooning, as the text requires. Once one gets used to it — and I surely did — it seems to be more interesting than Titus’s approach. Then there are the textual changes. Nowhere in the intelligently written booklet notes is there a mention of who changed the text and for what reason. The changes, though relatively minor, do not seem to me to be an improvement. Nor, however, do they do the work any real harm. For example, the Second Blues Singer in the Part IV Confession sings the following on the original recording: “If you ask me to love you on a bed of spice, Now that might be nice … It’s easy to keep the flair in your affair.” On the new recording it is, “If you ask me to love you in some real good vice Now that might be nice … It’s easy to have yourself a fine affair.” Later, on the original recording the Third Blues Singer sings, “It’s easy to criticize and beat my jive, But hard to deny how neatly I survive.” On the new one, it is, “It’s easy for you to dig my jim jam jive, And, baby, please observe how neatly I survive.” There are many other places in the Mass where similar changes are made. If Bernstein himself made them or approved of them, that’s fine. But the listener should be told. The other thing that could be improved upon is the listing of the various soloists singing the roles of the street people. They are all listed as a group in the beginning of the booklet, rather than giving them credit as individuals by each number they sing. They play as vital a role as the Morgan State University Choir, Peabody Children’s Chorus and the Baltimore Symphony all marshalled under the expert direction of Marin Alsop. Fortunately, young Asher Edward Wulfman, the boy soprano, gets separate billing. He clearly deserves it as much as Jubilant Sykes does for his greater part in the work.
The recording itself leaves nothing to be desired with sumptuous sound that at the same time allows for very clear diction. One hardly needs the text to follow the lyrics. If you haven’t heard Mass
for a while you ought to get a copy of this recording. With its exciting performance and outstanding sound, it’s not likely to be superseded for the foreseeable future.
see also review
by Simon Thompson
[October RECORDING OF THE MONTH]