Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918 – 1990)
Mass (1971) [104.01]
Jubilant Sykes (celebrant); Asher Edward Wulfman (treble)
Morgan State University Choir; Peabody Children’s Chorus
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. 21-22 October 2008, Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, USA
NAXOS 8.559622-23 [65.11 + 38.50]

Mass was Bernstein’s ‘Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers’. It was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the Lincoln Center and written in memory of her husband, John Kennedy. It is a theatre-piece, not a sacred work, but it takes as its core the text of the Mass.

The text, by Bernstein himself and Stephen Schwartz mixes the liturgy with their own texts. The whole is structured like a mass, but with a plethora of additional tropes. When he helped Bernstein with the text Schwartz had just had success with his musical Godspell.

The results are stylistically plural and frankly could only have been written by a polymath like Bernstein. As with other pieces which mined the zeitgeist of the period, Mass has dated. But we have learned to love Tippett’s arch hip-ness in The Midsummer Marriage and The Ice Break. So there is no reason why we shouldn’t learn to love Bernstein’s bewilderingly diverse piece; after all it is probably no more stylistically various than some of Mahler’s wanderings, and Mahler was one of Bernstein’s beloved composers.

The piece opens with a rather plinky-plonk Kyrie, which in the theatre is broadcast from speakers in a darkened auditorium though the listener at home misses this. This is interrupted by the Celebrant (here Jubilant Sykes) singing one of the work’s great numbers, A Simple Song. For the next sixty minutes things progress more or less along regular lines.

The Celebrant, the choir and the boys choir sing the liturgy; the street people sing their personal responses to the liturgy which involve comment and stream of consciousness thought. In a wonderful sequence the Latin Gloria segues into the street chorus’s ‘Glorious Living’. Similarly the chorus, which here is done on a recording, is interrupted by the Street People in a Trope which is called ‘Non Credo’ but in fact re-creates all the different things that people might be thinking in the mass. Bernstein uses his stylistic diversity to re-create the diversity of man.

Things get rather odder after the Offertory. Here we slip out of the usual liturgical order and get the Lord’s Prayer. The Celebrant himself wanders from the prayer into a long trope about doubt. The Sanctus moves into the Agnus Dei, with the Street Chorus reinforcing the cries for Peace. During the Sanctus Bernstein includes setting of the text in Hebrew as well.

There is no actual consecration, just the celebrant saying Hoc est enim Corpus Meum. Hic est enim Caliz Santuinis Mei. Somehow Bernstein, who it must be remembered was Jewish and so used to a non-sacramental form of regular worship, has written a mass where the host is never consecrated. The Agnus Dei is the section where the Street Chorus starts to dominate, to express their dissatisfaction. This is taken up by the Celebrant who spills the wine and has a sort of breakdown.

This moment ought to be up there with the other great musical theatre breakdowns from Gypsy and the original version of Company. Somehow it does not quite come off. It is uncomfortable but never quite as searing as I’d like. Perhaps it is far less shocking than it was in 1971 when the work was first performed. Here Jubilant Sykes has rather a tendency to croon too much in soft hushed tones. I wanted more voice and more anger.

The crucial question is how Bernstein and Schwartz will end the piece. Unfortunately they resort to sentimentality. You rather long for it to conclude in a riot of anger from the Street People; but instead the solo boy soprano sings Sing God a secret song: Lauda, Laude to the tune of the Celebrant’s original Simple Song. This is pure sentimental hokum of the variety seen in an endless number of American films. The boy turns the end of the Simple Song variant into a new piece setting words Laude Eum, Lauda Deum (Praise Him, Praise God). This is taken up by everyone in a climax which is intended to be transformative and heart-warming.

Robert Hilferty in his booklet notes, describes the Celebrant as ‘a broken man, finds his faith again through this untarnished simplicity, singing in moving unison with the boy’. The cynic in me comes out and my only response is hmm.

Musically the performers here give it their best shot and perform this closing quite brilliantly. Even so, for me, it does not really come off. Technically the boy soprano, Asher Edward Wulfman, is the weakest performer, singing in rather quiet breathy tones. The others give it their all and central to this is Marin Alsop who controls and mixes the stylistic diversity into a powerfully committed performance. No, the ending doesn’t quite work, but you can’t help but admire the commitment and intensity of all involved. Alsop’s contribution is amazing. She does not attempt to homogenize the disparate musical elements, but welds them into a diverse but cohesive whole.

And, as anyone who is familiar with the Mass will probably have spotted, Bernstein’s conclusion is entirely non-sacramental. The priest never does administer the bread and wine - instead everyone comes together in a transformative hymn of praise.

If you are unfamiliar with Bernstein’s Mass then you will probably need to listen to it a few times to absorb the work. On first sitting the stylistic diversity can be rather off-putting. But it is worth persevering with and this performance from Naxos is terrific value, certainly well worth the experiment.

Robert Hugill