I must begin this review with two important disclaimers. The first is that Leonard Bernstein’s Mass is not for everybody. Some, or perhaps many, of the readers of this website will strongly dislike the music. It is an unfamiliar and unpredictable blend of styles to which past critics have assigned labels like “crass”, “patronizing” and “a cacophonous, irreverent musical mess”. A critic whose opinion I greatly respect calls it “confused” and “ill-digested regressive emotional petulance”. This is a work which bends or demolishes nearly every rule in the Mass-writing lawbook. And it is an incredibly long, in fact too long piece — nearly two hours of an emotionally trying journey through atonality, gospel hymns, jazz, often-cynical Broadway tunes and moody instrumental interludes. When I first approached the Mass I did so with fear and low expectations. This performance dispelled these worries for me, but it may not do so for you.
My second disclaimer is that some readers may find the one-sidedness of this review disturbing. In the world of music criticism, a common and easy-to-write construction is, “This performance is truly fantastic and I love everything about it, but here is a tiny, meaningless quibble so you will know I was an objective critic.”Although I will try to discuss the merits of the Mass itself fairly, there are no quibbles about this performance; you will have to take it on my honor that I have been objective, and unfortunately you will have to bear with my superlatives.
I would like to get all of those superlatives on paper right here in the opening, and specifically in the next paragraph, so that after this introduction we can focus without distraction on a closer analysis of the music at hand.
This album absolutely bowled me over. My colleague Simon Thompson named it a Recording of the Month, and I joined another colleague, Leslie Wright, in selecting it as a 2009 Recording of the Year. Marin Alsop’s performance of the Bernstein Mass with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and a glittering cast of vocalists is the kind of album that wins every award there is and changes forever the way we perceive the music being played. Indeed, by rights it should permanently alter the way we view Leonard Bernstein the composer, and should force the music world to re-evaluate his stunning Mass. Artistically and sonically perfect, with the added jolt of emotionally invested performers and genuine historical and musicological importance, this album is one of the great recording triumphs of our era.
Now that the reader knows where I stand, let us proceed to a discussion of the music. The Bernstein Mass is, above all, a work of theatre. Its subtitle, “A Theatre Piece”, demands to be taken seriously; this is a musical first and a mass second. In constructing the work during the early 1970s, Bernstein created a storyline around which to set the words of the traditional Catholic mass; the story tells of a man, named the Celebrant, with a simple and unquestioning faith in God who is forced to confront all the doubts of his congregation. The Mass was premiered at a trying time in American history, in the midst of the Vietnam War and still under the shadow of the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King; as a consequence, counter-culture figures, represented by a rock band and rock singers, present their doubts, complaints and tirades throughout the Mass. Eventually the Celebrant himself begins to question his faith and endures a spiritual crisis, amid the terrifying chaos of a jaw-droppingly powerful “Agnus Dei”, but his hope is rekindled at the end, when a boy soprano sings a “simple song” of faith and renewal.
If this synopsis seems hokey to the reader, perhaps the Mass is for someone else. The musical styles are even more iconoclastic than the unconventional plot: around the Latin lines of the Catholic text Bernstein sets songs of war and rebellion, mocking suggestions about God’s divine plan and even a two-line verse by Paul Simon (“Half the people are stoned and the other half are waiting for the next election / Half the people are drowned and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction”). Between the traditional texts, which are often set to original jazz or pop tunes, Bernstein inserts additional songs, like the somewhat tiresome “Easy” or the dazzling (and very, very funny) “God Said”, which sounds like it fell out of a draft for West Side Story.
A synopsis of the first ten minutes will suffice to demonstrate this work’s at-times-bewildering musical eclecticism. The Mass begins with an atonal swarm of pre-recorded noise, played on tape recorder in the concert hall, and then moves on to “A Simple Song”, a Broadway-gospel masterpiece in miniature in which the Celebrant declares his faith. Then the jazz chorus interrupts with a Swingle-Singers-style number, and the multi-genre tone is set. The Latin texts are all here, but the flux of musical idioms never lets us anticipate what might be coming next.
What most music critics fail to understand is that there are unifying factors in this tumult. Though it sometimes feels as if Bernstein threw every idea he could at the Mass just to see what would stick, the structure is quite sophisticated. The CDs’ excellent liner-notes, by Robert Hilferty, explain some of the running themes, including a vitally important repeated quotation of Beethoven’s Ninth - which is not as easy to hear as you might think. In the climactic final scene, much of what we have heard before returns to haunt the Celebrant, and the piece ends with a reminiscence of the opening “Simple Song”.
I would make the additional argument that the so-called jumble of musical styles is, in part, a musicological myth. The assumption all along has been that this is a strictly classical work which borrows willy-nilly from popular traditions; Dan Morgan, in citing the Chandos recording of the Mass as a 2009 Recording of the Year, stresses the presumed classical foundation of the work by using (justly) the phrase “operatic intensity”. But I think we have been looking at the work upside-down; it does have operatic intensity, but it is a piece which lives - somewhat uncomfortably - in its own world, in its own style. The foundation is Broadway and Bernstein’s stage work; add to that his interests in jazz and rock, and then, finally, place everything within a classical framework, showcasing the orchestra in the meditations, allowing the inspiration from Beethoven to be made clear, and creating cyclical motifs. Bernstein had always brought his classical genius to bear on popular theatre works like West Side Story; perhaps we can look at the Mass with greater understanding if we approach it in a similar way.
If I have a major qualm about the composition itself, aside from the length, it is that the lyrics sometimes can be embarrassingly poor. Bernstein and collaborator Stephen Schwartz had immense trouble writing this text, and, even with the help of people like Paul Simon, their labors show. “God Said” is one of several songs that’s brilliantly written (“I Believe in God” also stands out), but others are not so lucky. In “Easy”, one singer is given the unpleasant task of delivering the syrupy verse, “If you ask me to sing you verse that’s versatile / I’ll be glad to beguile you for a while / But don’t look for content beneath the style / Sit back and smile.” And, in the same song, the rather excellent observation that “Living is easy when you’re half alive” is rhymed with an idiotic admonishment to “dig my jim-jam-jive”.
Maybe Bernstein was just being ironic when he asked us not to “look for content beneath the style”, though, for the fact is that there is content beneath the distinctive style if this piece. With this performance we at last have grounds for assessing that content. Marin Alsop and her forces make the argument, far better than I can, that this is a work of popular musical theatre with classical leanings — not an operatic work with popular influences. Contrast the present recording with the nearly-simultaneous Chandos release featuring Austrian choruses and musicians under conductor Kristjan Järvi: the Celebrant on the Chandos recording, Randall Scarlata, sings well, but he sings operatically, and his “Simple Song” is a slow, stately aria. The Naxos Celebrant, Jubilant Sykes, by contrast, is a perfect mirror of the Mass itself: he was trained classically but never lost sight of roots in gospel and jazz music, and his performance here is a definitive combination of the genres at hand.
Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that Jubilant Sykes was born to sing the role of the Celebrant, and that the Celebrant was born to be sung by Sykes. His fresh-faced innocence at the opening, his bright and clear singing voice, and his impeccable acting all outpace the too-operatic stars who have tackled the role over the decades. Sykes sounds like the lead in an edgy musical, not a classical tenor. And, in a personal touch, Sykes even mentions the names of his wife and children (CC, Madison, Morgan and Micah) as being among the congregation at the end of “Meditation No. 3”.
The rest of the vocal cast is incredible, too. For the parts of the “street singers”, one wonders if Naxos raided the best shows on Broadway and brought us what they found. The booklet notes tell me that a professional casting director was employed for the sessions. But these voices do not just have beauty and power on their side: they have character, so much that even a twenty-second interjection is enough time for some of these singers to make an unforgettable mark - as with the man who sings the verse “God said it’s good to be poor” in the ninth movement, “Gospel-Sermon” or the young man who wishes he could say “Credo”.
The Morgan State University Chorus and Peabody Children’s Chorus also bring their absolute best to this performance. The voices of the Morgan State singers for “In Nomine Patris” sound like smiles, and have echoed in my head for days. The Järvi/Chandos recording also has some excellent vocal work, but a few of the street singers on that album sing in parodies of Broadway style, and some are altogether too operatic to be “street people”. On the Naxos disc, the singers are more appropriate to the vision of this work not as a confused mess of a classical piece but a popular work whose purpose has been misconstrued and misappropriated.
Conductor Marin Alsop has the task of bringing this enormous mass of forces together, along with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a rock band, and pre-recorded clips presented on tape. My MusicWeb International colleague Simon Thompson is one of several critics to have judged this Alsop’s greatest recording to date; it is clear on this evidence that Alsop deeply understands her old mentor, Bernstein, and the classical, jazz and popular idioms in which he worked.
And yet to speak in terms like these is to leave something unsaid about the present recording. Yes, this is the best available performance of the Bernstein Mass. Yes, if there is justice in the musical world, it will inspire a major reassessment of the merits of this big, crazy, multi-dimensional work, and perhaps redirect our thinking about the true purpose, and true language, of the piece. Yes, Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony, the Morgan State and Peabody singers, and Jubilant Sykes all play and sing their hearts out. Yes, the engineering of this whole spectacle is jaw-droppingly clear and the balances do justice to every contribution, and yes, the liner-notes, complete with eight still photographs of a live performance of the Mass, far outclass the typical Naxos booklet. But even so there is something a description like this is missing.
Rarely, very rarely, do I get a feeling when listening to a performance — a totally unquantifiable feeling — of something truly extraordinary happening. It is much more common in live performance: one’s sense of wonder comes into play, or perhaps awe, or maybe joy. Some people describe the feeling as a spiritual or even religious experience; Paul McCartney calls it ‘childlike wonder’. I call it ‘magic’.
Everyone’s list of recorded albums which have that ‘magic’ will be different, but all of them will be very short. My list of ‘magical’ recordings, the ones that are not just artistically and technically perfect but which inspire, which hold unique joys in every bar, is not long at all: Kleiber’s Brahms Fourth, Blomstedt’s Bruckner Seventh, Dausgaard’s Beethoven Third, Pollini in the last Beethoven piano sonatas, Karel Ancerl’s Janácek Glagolitic Mass, and a live broadcast (on Brilliant Classics) of Leonid Kogan playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. To that list I add this recording.
You may add it to your list, too. We can still argue about the compositional merits of the Bernstein Mass, now looking at the work from an entirely different perspective and through a new, clearer lens. But this recording, one of the most important issues of the past decade, proves beyond all doubt the power of this Mass to move, to inspire, to break and remake hearts. If you can listen to the “Simple Song” or the utterly overwhelming catastrophe that is the “Agnus Dei” without being deeply moved, the fault does not lie with the composer or the performers. This recording is one for the ages.
see also reviews by Robert
Wright and Simon