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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1914-1990)
Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers (1971) [107:07]
(Text: Liturgy of the Roman Mass. Additional texts: Stephen Schwartz and Leonard Bernstein)
see end of review for track listing
Randall Scarlata (baritone) – Celebrant
Company of Music (Street Chorus)/Johannes Hiemetsberger
Tölzer Knabenchor (Boys’ Choir)/Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden
Chorus sine nomine/Johannes Hiemetsberger
Absolute Ensemble
Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich/Kristjan Järvi
rec. 16-21 February 2006, Festspielhaus St Pölten, Austria
CHANDOS CHSA5070 [42:15 + 64:52]
Experience Classicsonline

When 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 and Chichester Psalms 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, describing Mass as 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 satisfying either.
 
Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy to commemorate the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, Mass is 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 – but I was more curious to hear how these non-English-speaking forces would cope with such a quintessentially American score.
 
The 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.
 
The 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 inner glow.
 
Even at this early stage it’s clear that Järvi has transformed Mass from 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 performance.
 
At 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.
 
The 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 and it lurks here too, although the radiant violin solos do manage to pierce the pervading gloom.
 
This 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, with 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 expressive close.
 
For all its shortcomings Bernstein’s recording will always have a special one. It’s a unique reflection of the prevailing zeitgeist, and for that reason alone it deserves a place on your shelves. Järvi’s reading is altogether more thoughtful, a mature, 21st-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 as well.
 
Scarlata 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 in 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. There’s a bit of everything here, but then that’s what Bernstein does best; he is a great assimilator.
 
The 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 guise.
 
The 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.
 
We 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.
 
The 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.
 
Despite 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.
 
As a convert I exhort all those who don’t believe in Mass to 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.
 
Dan Morgan

Track listing
CD 1
I. Devotions before Mass [7:41]
Antiphon: Kyrie eleison [1:57]
Hymn and Psalm: 'A Simple Song' [4:33]
Responsory: Alleluia [1:10]

II. First Introit (Rondo) [5:35]
Prefatory Prayers [4:58]
Thrice-Triple Canon: Dominus vobiscum [0:37]

III. Second Introit [4:14]
In nomine Patris [1:51]
Prayer for the Congregation (Chorale: 'Almighty Father') [1:30]
Epiphany [0:52]

IV. Confession [8:29]
Confiteor [1:59]
Trope: 'I Don't Know' [1:29]
Trope: 'Easy' [4:59]

V. Meditation No. 1 [5:23]

VI. Gloria [6:42]
Gloria tibi [1:35]
Gloria in Excelsis [1:16]
Trope: 'Half of the People' [1:01]
Trope: 'Thank You' [2:49]

VII. Meditation No. 2 [4:07]

CD 2                          
VIII. Epistle: 'The Word of the Lord' [5:31]
IX. Gospel-Sermon: 'God Said' [4:44]

X. Credo [8:00]
Credo in unum Deum [0:58]
Trope: 'Non Credo' [2:10]
Trope: 'Hurry' [1:16]
Trope: 'World without End' [1:29]
Trope: 'I Believe in God' [2:05]

XI. Meditation No. 3 [2:37]
XII. Offertory [2:06]

XIII. The Lord's Prayer [5:07]
Our Father… [1:44]
Trope: 'I Go On' [3:23]

XIV. Sanctus [5:07]
XV. Agnus Dei [6:35]
XVI. Fraction: 'Things Get Broken' [15:31]
XVII. Pax: Communion ('Secret Songs') [9:28]
 


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