I first heard Bernstein’s Mass
it was less than
a decade old, and already it seemed dated. I wasn’t much
impressed at the time, although I’m pleased to say Mass
are now the Bernstein works I enjoy most; for
me both have a naive charm that is unmistakably Lenny.
Some listeners are much less charitable,
either toe-curling or just plain trash, even though it’s
blessed with music of genuine emotional weight and inspiration.
These qualities are not necessarily obvious in Bernstein’s
own recording for CBS/Sony, recently released as part of
the Bernstein Century series (SM2K 63089). Kent Nagano’s
Harmonia Mundi set (HM 801840) is certainly most welcome,
especially as it is a hybrid SACD, but that isn’t wholly
by Jacqueline Kennedy to commemorate the opening of the
Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, Mass
recorded here by Austrian groups under Kristjan Järvi.
Rob Barnett was much impressed with this conductor’s set
of Schmidt’s Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln
– see review
I was more curious to hear how these non-English-speaking
forces would cope with such a quintessentially American
Celebrant in Bernstein’s own recording is the light baritone
Alan Titus, whose boyish good looks seemed entirely right
for the piece. Järvi’s Celebrant is the darker, more commanding
Randall Scarlata, who bears a passing resemblance to the
late British actor Donald Pleasence. Not quite the youthful
presence one might expect, but his first entry in the Hymn
and Psalm dispels any doubts about his suitability for
the part. This ‘Simple Song’ with its artless guitar chords
has a certain gravitas that’s every bit as appealing as
Titus’s more naive approach for Bernstein. In fact, from
the very outset one senses that Järvi takes a serious view
of this work, the instrumental soloists, singers and orchestral
players commendably focused throughout.
Responsory: Alleluia (tr. 3) is the first of the work’s
pre-recorded-tape segments and very effective it is too.
The vocalists meld beautifully with the music’s jazzy syncopations,
and even if Bernstein’s is the more sprightly reading Järvi’s
is much more insightful in terms of detail and texture.
Indeed, the latter makes this music sound newly minted,
bringing out the many fine qualities of Bernstein’s writing.
If anything the composer doesn’t always do justice to his
own score; also, the CBS sound is a little rough and variably
balanced, the recessed ‘ping-pong stereophony’ of the opening
Antiphon sounding very contrived. By comparison the Chandos
engineers have come up with a convincing soundstage and
a warm, vibrant acoustic that gives the music a lovely
at this early stage it’s clear that Järvi has transformed Mass
a piece of seventies tat into something much more substantial
and less time-bound. Those who cringe at Bernstein’s own
reading will surely respond to this more symphonic reading.
I certainly found myself revelling in details and rhythms
as yet only hinted at, marvelling also at the coherence
of Bernstein’s hastily assembled creation. Yes, the Alleluias
are heavily accented but goodness, the Ivesian rumty-tumty
of the First Introit (tr. 4) has never sounded so uproarious.
Perhaps the Austrian oompah-pah tradition is the secret
ingredient here, the Company of Music (the Street Chorus)
and Tölz boys in fine form as well. Surely even the ever-critical
Bernstein would have been captivated by the verve of this
this point I’d pretty much given up comparing the two recordings,
such are the musical virtues and sonic splendours of this
Chandos account. Scarlata and the boys’ choir are incisive
and alert in the Thrice-Triple Canon: Dominus vobiscum
(tr. 5) and the restless bongos of In nomine Patris (another
taped segment) are judged to perfection. The Tölz boys
and the Chorus sine nomine are particularly affecting in
the supplicatory Prayer for the Congregation (tr. 7). One
would have to be stony hearted not to be moved by this
gentlest of utterances, so feelingly voiced. After the
bird-like oboe solo in the Epiphany (tr. 8) the Celebrant’s
call to confession (tr. 9) has some strongly rhythmic singing
from Chorus sine nomine and a moody electric bass line.
balance between acoustic and electric instruments is a
real challenge in Mass, but here it’s very well managed,
the funky trope ‘I Don’t Know’ stylishly sung by ‘rock
singers’ Reinwald Kranner and Dave Moskin. This kind of
pointedly ‘hip’ interjection is very risky indeed – cue
more shudders from the critics – but if anyone can bring
it off Lenny can. Meanwhile the bluesy trope ‘Easy’ (tr.
11) reminds me of Hair,
another of those iconic
shows from the period, albeit with the brazenness and Berlin
accents of Cabaret.
What a contrast with the symphonic
Meditation No. 1 (tr. 12), with its agitated, Shostakovich-like
string figures. There is real darkness and doubt in Mass
it lurks here too, although the radiant violin solos do
manage to pierce the pervading gloom.
new optimism is echoed in the vigorous Gloria tibi (tr.
13). Gloria in excelsis (tr. 14) is surely modelled on
the spring-loaded rhythms of Poulenc’s Gloria,
a dash of West Side Story
added to ‘Half of the
People’ (tr. 15). Incredibly for players who aren’t familiar
with this music they inject an idiomatic, Jet-like swagger
to the start of ‘Thank You’, movingly sung by soprano Ruth
Kraus. Again doubts surface in the Mahlerian Meditation
No. 2, the cello soloist assailed by menacing interjections
from the orchestra. In spite of that the simple solo line
outlasts them all, bringing the first disc to a warmly
all its shortcomings Bernstein’s recording will always
have a special one. It’s a unique reflection of the prevailing zeitgeist,
for that reason alone it deserves a place on your shelves.
Järvi’s reading is altogether more thoughtful, a mature,
-century take on the fading flower culture
of the early seventies. We readily accept that performing
styles change in other genres, so it’s entirely appropriate
that we have a new – and refreshing – perspective on Mass
opens disc two with an arresting Epistle. Even ‘Dear Mom
and Dad’ has added resonance, a new urgency, in an uncertain
world, and once again Järvi responds with great sensitivity
to the demands of the score. Anyone who doubts the ability
of European performers to get to the heart of this piece
of Americana should sample the upbeat Gospel-Sermon ‘God
Said’ (tr. 2). I was simply astonished by the choruses’ ability
to capture the rafter-ringing revivalism of this great
number. Järvi and his musicians really seem to believe
this score, and of course belief – in the form of the Credo – lies
at the very heart of the Mass. Typically, Bernstein contrasts
this pre-recorded segment with its polar opposite, ‘Non
Credo‘. André Bauer is the fine baritone soloist here,
and the pre-recorded Crucifixus will surely bring back
memories of the rock-opera Jesus Christ Superstar.
a bit of everything here, but then that’s what Bernstein
does best; he is a great assimilator.
mezzo Heldemaria Gruber makes the most of the trope ‘Hurry’ (tr.
5), although her words aren’t very clear. Ruth Kraus enters
the fray in ‘World without End’ (tr. 6), which teeters
on the brink of musical anarchy. Then there is a torrent
of Janáček-like ‘Amens’ at the start of ‘I Believe
in God’ (tr. 7), in which Moskin – and just about everybody
else – come perilously close to bringing the temple crashing
down around them. The Chandos engineers cope admirably
with all this controlled chaos; indeed, the recording sounds
exceptional in both its CD and two-channel SACD forms.
I imagine it would sound even more spectacular in its multi-channel
Celebrant’s stern invocation ‘Let us pray’ is met with
an equally forceful response from the players in Meditation
No. 3 (tr. 8) and elicits some transported singing from
Chorus sine nomine. Scarlata’s heartfelt prayer ’Remember,
O Lord, thou servants and handmaids’ – intoned over a sustained
organ note – embraces performers and conductor; it’s a
touching moment that can so easily descend into bathos,
yet here it’s carried off with great conviction. The Tölz
boys and Chorus sine nomine blaze their way through the
Orffian Offertory (tr. 9) before we hear The Lord’s Prayer
(tr. 10), sung and picked out on the piano by the Celebrant.
It’s another of those potentially shudder-inducing moments
that actually works very well. Scarlata then tops that
with a melting rendition of ‘I Go On’. At this point I
admit I was ready to jump up and applaud.
move into the bright tones of the treble-dominated Sanctus
(tr. 12) with its twangy interlude for electric guitar,
part for counter-tenor and the usual Orffian ostinati.
It’s a truly bizarre confection but, as usual, Bernstein
seems to make a decent recipe out of these disparate ingredients.
Goodness, these drums would make the Telarc engineers green
with envy; and the sheer oomph of the Agnus Dei (tr. 13)
will take your breath away; Indeed, I wondered if Järvi
and his musicians could wring any more volume or intensity
from this wild, wild apotheosis.
somewhat surreal sprechgesang
-like ‘Fraction: Things
Get Broken’ (tr. 14) comes as a welcome respite after all
that unbridled power. Once again Scarlata impresses with
his extraordinary vocal range and colour palette, not to
mention his ability to traverse so many different singing
styles. In this, one of the longest and most sustained
sections of Mass.
Bernstein’s melodic gifts are
arrayed for all to see; remarkably, though, it’s Järvi,
not the composer, who shows them off to best advantage.
all the conductor’s insights it’s Scarlata who makes this
performance come alive. By comparison Titus sounds like
a lightweight, lacking in character or feeling. Just listen
to how Scaralata conveys exhaustion and despair in this
penultimate – and very demanding – section. And savour
those harps, soft pillows of sound on which the Celebrant
can rest his weary head. Hugely theatrical, but as with
all such gestures they are highly effective when handled
with such sensitivity and good judgment. And the final
section, with its treble solo, will surely bring back memories
of Chichester Psalms.
Boy soprano Georg Drexel is
very affecting here – far preferable to the rather winsome
soloist in Lenny’s recording – as is the solo flute of
Sonja Korak. There is a real sense of repose here, framed
by harps and vocalists. Drexel returns at the close, his
pure tones entwined with those of the more worldly Celebrant.
a convert I exhort all those who don’t believe in Mass
buy this recording and recant. I didn’t expect to be as
moved and thrilled by this performance as I was; indeed,
it sets new standards for this most underrated work, both
musically and sonically. Add to all these virtues a chunky,
well-written booklet – including texts – and you have the
makings of a modern classic.
I. Devotions before Mass [7:41]
II. First Introit (Rondo) [5:35]
III. Second Introit [4:14]
IV. Confession [8:29]
V. Meditation No. 1 [5:23]
VI. Gloria [6:42]
VII. Meditation No. 2 [4:07]
VIII. Epistle: 'The Word of the Lord' [5:31]
IX. Gospel-Sermon: 'God Said' [4:44]
X. Credo [8:00]
XI. Meditation No. 3 [2:37]
XII. Offertory [2:06]
XIII. The Lord's Prayer [5:07]
XIV. Sanctus [5:07]
XV. Agnus Dei [6:35]
XVI. Fraction: 'Things Get Broken' [15:31]
XVII. Pax: Communion ('Secret Songs') [9:28]