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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Mass - A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers (1971) [105:00]
Text from the liturgy of the Roman Mass. Additional texts by Stephen Schwartz and Leonard Bernstein
Celebrant - Jubilant Sykes (baritone)
Morgan State University Choir; Peabody Children’s Chorus
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, October 2008
NAXOS 8.559622-23 [65:11 + 38:50]
Experience Classicsonline

This fantastic set is a true revelation. Before sitting down to listen to these discs I had only ever read about Bernstein’s Mass and the comments were universally disparaging. Alsop’s eye-opening performance shows it to be what it is: a genuinely daring attempt to fuse a huge mix of musical genres into a theatre piece which explores faith and doubt, loss and gain, and pulling it off remarkably successfully.

Mass was written in response to a commission from Jackie Kennedy Onassis for a work to open the new John F. Kennedy Centre for Performing Arts in Washington D.C. Bernstein wrote of the commission, “I’ve always wanted to compose a service of one sort or another, and I toyed with ecumenical services that would combine elements from various religions ... The Mass is also an extremely dramatic event in itself - it even suggests a theatre work.” Mass is indeed a theatre work. The Latin text serves as a framework around which to orientate the lives of various characters and groups. At the centre is the celebrant himself who begins by articulating his “simple song” to God but goes through a crisis of faith, smashing the holy vessels towards the end, before he is rehabilitated by the simplicity of belief in the final moments. Elsewhere the congregation, known as the Street People, spend most of the work questioning whether there is any merit to the mass at all: during the Credo a Rock band answers with the words “I believe in God / but does God believe in me? I’ll believe in any god / if any god there be” and elsewhere “and then a plaster god like you has the gall to tell me what to do.”

Bernstein was right: it’s a tremendously dramatic journey, thanks in part to the additional lyrics provided by Wunderkind Stephen Schwartz, fresh from his triumph in Godspell. Bernstein provides music that positively thumps with energy, encompassing classical, jazz, rock and blues, as well as some traditional Jewish elements. With all of this you would think that Mass should be a rag-tag mix of genres without much to keep it together, but in a performance like this you are instantly impressed with the undeniable unity of the piece.

The playing is fantastic from everyone. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conjure up the cacophonous racket of the Kyrie as if it was Stockhausen but demonstrate great beauty in the first Meditation and the touching simplicity of the final Pax section. The marching band, rock group and jazz ensemble are all given absolutely equal weighting - no sense of hierarchy in this most catholic of Catholic masses - and they all play tremendously. The zany marching music that accompanies the first entrance of the Street People is chaotic and lawless, the antithesis of all that the military march stands for, and guitarists for the jazz and rock elements burst onto the senses with sometimes disconcerting suddenness, jolting the listener up in his seat and forcing him to pay more attention.

The singing is fantastic too. Jubilant Sykes’ Celebrant has a fantastically appropriate voice for this music, dark and rich but sexy too, with more than a hint of danger. He just sounds so right for this role: I can’t imagine anyone better placed to play the role of the preacher turned heretic and his is one of the finest musical portrayals I’ve come across this year. The sense of gathering uncertainty is palpable throughout the performance, from the beautiful simplicity of the opening, though to the experimental confidence of the Sanctus - “Mi alone is only me, but me with sol, me with soul, means a song is beginning.” He is gut-wrenching at the depth of his doubt but wonderfully positive in his final rehabilitation, making me feel like I had gone on the journey with him. His Street People, the Morgan State University Choir, are far from being backing singers. They have an energy and thrill to them that you naturally associate with the Jets and Sharks in West Side Story (the “Sermon” section reminded me a lot of Gee, Officer Krupke) and each solo contribution is distinctly characterised so as to create a feeling of community falling apart but ultimately growing together again.

The recording engineers have done a fantastic job in capturing the many different acoustics needed for this work: no less than ten times a pre-recorded taped performance is needed, and the ear is jolted into an entirely different space for those in comparison to the “live” performance. They also use the full stereo arc to maximum effect so as to distinguish between the different characters and performers.

Highest praise of all must go to Alsop, however. Having once been Bernstein’s pupil she has now become the most convincing advocate on disc for this previously problematic work. She holds together every strand of this endlessly diverse score, welding it into a convincing musical and dramatic whole. This is perhaps her greatest recording to date, and I don’t doubt that she would say it’s the one closest to her heart. Alsop's achievement comes into particular focus when compared to two recent competitors: Nagano and Järvi. On Harmonia Mundi Nagano's performance is hamstrung by a limpid, disengaged celebrant in Jerry Hadley, and while Randall Scarlata does a better job for Järvi on Chandos, he still sounds as though he is giving a formal lieder performance and doesn't engage with the sheer anarchy of Bernstein's vision. The playing is altogether better and more energetic for Järvi, but still Alsop leaves these other interpreters in the shade.

Added to all this is an excellent booklet essay by Robert Hilferty and full sung texts. At Naxos super-budget price you can afford to check this out without much risk. It may be the cheapest Mass on the market but it’s also by far the best. Do not hesitate.

Simon Thompson



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