Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Mass - A theatre piece for singers, players and dancers (1971)
Vojtěch Dyk (baritone)
Wiener Singakademie, Opernschule der Weiner Staatsoper, Company of Music,
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Dennis Russell-Davies
rec. 2018, Konzerthaus Wien CAPRICCIO C5370 [64:26 + 47:21]
Some art is deemed timeless, speaking with equal insight and validity across the centuries. Other works are locked into the decade of their creation, which can make them date only shortly afterwards, but as the years pass, they can be seen as reflecting more presciently their Zeitgeist. So it is with Leonard Bernstein's Mass. While no-one questions Bernstein's genius as a charismatic, ferociously multi-talented musician, the bulk of his "serious" compositions still generate as much unease amongst critics as praise. And Mass - A Theatre Piece for singers, players and dancers elicits probably the greatest unease of all. For some listeners - myself included - it represents one of Bernstein's most significant, most personal utterances, while for others it seems to be an incoherent mish-mash of empty musical gestures and pop-culture pastiche. The reason I say it is one of Bernstein's most personal utterances is because in this work he finally embraces and accepts his greatest compositional/musical strength: to write music that is melodic, lyrical, energetic, formally complex, harmonically sophisticated and technically brilliant. Few other composers around 1970 would dare to write an out-and-out "big tune" in the way that Bernstein seemed able to produce at will. Somehow tunes are not considered cerebral enough - too obvious, too instant in their gratification. Mass overflows with tunes, which was probably the last nail in its critical coffin.
However, with the 50th anniversary of the first performance next year, it is now possible to regard Mass as a celebration of the spirit of the time in which it was written in the same way the popular culture of any decade has its highlights and faux-pas. The first recording of Mass featuring the original cast conducted by Bernstein will always remain the version against which all others are judged. The performances there, led by the Celebrant sung by Alan Titus, burst with conviction and brilliance. Juilliard-trained Titus was just 26 when he created the role - one of those rare but happy instances in Musical Theatre or Opera when a performer "fits" the role to perfection; vocally (opera trained but completely at home in a popular idiom too), look, age - everything exactly right. So perfectly that I am not sure any of the subsequent singers of the role have matched him. Another facet of the early 1970's was the emergence of a series of works fusing the biblical and rock. Jesus Christ Superstar was being written at exactly the same time, Stephen Schwartz - just 23 himself and fresh from his success on Godspell - helped with the libretto for Mass. Just mentioning Mass in the same sentence as Jesus Christ Superstar will have some readers coming out in hives but it is important to remember that those rock bible musicals were huge hits at the time clearly resonating with a large part of society. Therefore, it was wholly legitimate for Bernstein to explore that relatable idiom for a work written to memorialise that most idealised of all-American Presidents, J.F. Kennedy. That, in turn, brings up the question of how the piece should be performed - especially the key role of the celebrant. Again, Titus seems to solve most of the problems with a classical technique allowing him to overcome the wide range and considerable vocal demands of the role while also having a naturally 'loose' feel to phrasing that is wholly apt. Nearly every celebrant since Titus has had to compromise to some degree.
On this new recording, the role is taken by the near unknown singer Vojtěch Dyk. Dyk is a thirty-five-year-old Czech actor/musician who graduated from the Prague Academy of Performing Arts but has had a career - it appears - fronting bands. Certainly his vocal style is considerably more pop/musical theatre-influenced than most others who have assumed the role (Jubilant Sykes with Marin Alsop comes closest to this approach). I prefer it a lot more than the straight-jacketed Jerry Hadley for Kent Nagano. Hadley was Bernstein's singer of choice for his concert recording of Candide but he is the wrong voice - a tenor - in the wrong role here. I am not wholly convinced by Dyk - I wish he had been encouraged to riff around the notes less. He does it well and it certainly sounds idiomatic, but it’s all about using that as an expressive choice rather than simply doing a little riff because you can. However, I do prefer Dyk to Sykes, who, to my ear, chooses a more mannered, self-conscious phrasing and a more affected word pointing. At several points Sykes is found out by the demands of the part and has to resort to vocal tricks to get him around the actual notes (something Dyk is guilty of too). For me, his contribution is the main considerable blot on the Alsop version which many consider the legitimate heir to the Bernstein original. In terms of the actual sound he makes - most of the time - I like Dyk most of any Celebrant since Titus - I just don't like all his choices. He is also caught out by the range on occasion - Gloria tibi [CD 1 track 13] is just one case in point. Because there is so much music, there are passages that seem spot-on sitting next to ones that feel mannered. Dyk's The Lord's Prayer [CD2 tracks 3 & 4] is a case in point. This is written to be sung falsetto but Dyk chooses a fey almost 'doped' style which loses any connection with these most famous words - but then the following I go on sung in full voice is far better - even if with more of the unnecessary riffs.
The technical engineering of Mass on disc is a major challenge to the production team, too. By that measure, the 1971 original remains remarkably good although it is clearly showing its age. However, it is infinitely preferable to the engineering mess that is the DG version - one of the most recent recordings - from Yannick Nézet-Séguin with the Philadelphia Orchestra. This was very much a passion project for Nézet-Séguin so one would have expected this to be a triumph with the very considerable resources at his command. Unfortunately, the merits of that performance are wholly eclipsed by the awful sound produced by DG. If you listen on headphones especially, you are aware of the struggle the engineers had to produce any kind of coherent soundstage with the perspectives of the various groups/ensembles changing from section to section. This is a collage-like work at the best of times - the DG recording emphasises that to the music's detriment. A final nail is another tenor/celebrant in Kevin Vortmann whose voice is better suited to the role than Hadley’s but still not right.
Here, Dennis Russell- Davies also conducts a live performance - as can be heard, with quite a lot of extraneous audience noises and some changes in musical perspective as the cast move around the performing space. The downside is a very occasional imbalance between musicians and voices, but conversely the clarity and accuracy of music of the singing is remarkable. That said, there are a couple of odd artefacts in this live recording that could have been corrected or simply edited out. One is the join between the end of the taped Et in Spiritum Sanctum where the recorded cries of "Amen" are overlapped/taken up by the live chorus into the following I believe in God. Perhaps Russell-Davies simply missed the cue but the taped "Amens" finish, there is a creaky second or two of silence and then the live choir start. Then, at the end of the wild orchestral dance that is the Offertory, [the Bernstein-goes-Carmina Burana section] three rather perfunctory bell notes from the keyboard to give Dyk his note to enter on in The Lord's Prayer are left in. Right at the end of the work the libretto (and all other performances) include a voice saying; "The Mass is ended, go in Peace". For some reason - was it masked by applause which has been cut on the disc perhaps? - this is missing. For sure it’s not 'music' but I miss the closure that it brings and its omission is baffling and disappointing.
That apart, the Capriccio recording is 'just' standard CD quality and by that measure alone it must cede to the Chandos SA-CD under Kristjan Järvi which sounds superb. Overall, the Järvi has a lot going for it not least because his is the first version to try to reconceptualise the work. It can be argued that all the other recorded performances are to some degree a reworking of the original - following the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" adage I assume. Not that I am convinced by every choice Järvi makes but it certainly is interesting to have one's assumptions challenged.
Given that much musical theatre in Germany and Austria is performed in English it comes as no surprise that the bulk of the text sounds very well with just the occasional inflection betraying the non-native speaker/singer. The Epistle is always one of the hardest sections to bring off with the spoken text rather coy and affected - something these Viennese performers do not manage to avoid. The Capriccio booklet includes the full original libretto alongside a German-only translation. Away from the Celebrant role, Mass makes substantial demands of a whole raft of solo singers. In effect these are often members of the "street chorus" who move - quite literally - centre stage to lead one section. The Capriccio liner lists the names of the vocal group Company of Music who comprise this Chorus but they do not make clear who sings which solo when. As ever, it is hard to directly compare any singer following on from the original audibly inspired group. Here the Company of Music singers are collectively excellent but sometimes lacking the individual personality of the original performers - so again one soloist in Credo is disappointingly square and plain while the next one is excellent. The same vocal group sang the same part for Järvi in 2009 (their chorus master is the same - Johannes Hiemetsberger) but as far as I can tell the members of the group are different. The children's chorus Russell-Davies deploys have a wonderfully natural, unaffected sound, less choir-like than some versions and again I think this suits the music perfectly. Likewise, the choral singing of the 'chorales' such as Second Introit - 2. Prayer for the congregation "Almighty Father" is beautifully sung.
The playing of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra is very good indeed - idiomatic and tight. Alongside them, the rock band instruments are recorded with an exciting close presence and generally the band/orchestra/pre-recorded parts are reproduced here on disc very well - indeed it runs the SA-CD recorded Chandos set very close. The three Meditations that are placed through the work of which the first two are orchestra alone are given first rate performances. Bernstein extracted these from Mass as a standalone work and Russell-Davies gives an excellent emotionally terse account. I just have a nagging sense that Russell-Davies' singers don't project the early 70's neuroses that Järvi's singers get closer to. Also, there are just a couple of occasions when this live Capriccio version comes apart vocally when singers miss climactic notes [disc 1 track 10 "I don't know" - is one such uneasy moment].
One of the significant successes of this new set is Russell-Davies' skill at binding together the sampler-like variety of this sprawling score. Too often it can seem as though it lurches from one emotion-laden, cathartic release to another. Russell-Davies is able to pace the work so its progression from certainty through challenge to doubt, despair and acceptance (which in turn is an echo of the well-known "five stages of grief") is very well delineated. A sequence which shows his ability to build through a series of climaxes is on the second CD from the opening Meditation No.3 through to the final overwhelming climax of the Agnus Dei. All the performers really do pull all the stops out in this final passage which has a compelling cumulative rage. At this point in the work the Celebrant shockingly/controversially smashes the chalice spilling the Holy Sacrament. This fifteen minute 'mad scene' is hugely challenging for any singer as it veers with disconcerting rapidity from the coarse to the vacuous, to the profound and lyrical. During its course, Bernstein revisits much music from earlier in the work in a near-hallucinatory, multi-layered way. For sure, it is a compositional tour de force and here Dyk's natural instinct to ornament around the written notes pays dividends. It gives him a vocal freedom that not even Titus can match although his is the more secure vocal instrument. However, that very security detracts from the delirious quality Bernstein seems to seek. Of course, not every choice is equally effective but I do admire the way Dyk really 'acts' the part here - again his background giving him a range of dramatic insights some of the other Celebrants do not find. This is a never a comfortable listen but Dyk is in the main impressive - if only he trusted a less obvious emoting style when the clouds lift and the orchestra enters promising a new dawn and hope. Järvi's Celebrant, Randall Scarlata, is more of a trained baritone than Dyk which gives him the lower notes in the role/mad scene but he takes fewer chances interpretatively so, as so often with this work, it is a case of swings and roundabouts.
In this powerful section Dyk is given first rate support once again by Russell-Davies and his Viennese Orchestra. They are wholly attuned to near schizophrenic changes of mood and dynamic and the Capriccio engineers achieve a remarkable balance of detail and complexity given the live recording environment. The transition into the closing Pax Communion - Secret Songs is one of Bernstein's most valedictory - this is a recurring technique in Bernstein's music from West Side Story and On the Waterfront to Kaddish and ultimately here in Mass. Russell-Davies' boy soprano has a disarmingly natural and unaffected style and all the performers sing in canon "Lauda Laude" building to a final chorale-like "Almighty Father incline thy ear...." Again, all credit to Russell-Davies for building one final redemptive climax which brings this performance to a deeply satisfying conclusion except for the omission of "Go in Peace" as previously mentioned.
Listening to this fascinating, moving, confusing, complicated work has made me think that there will never be a perfect performance - it is simply too diverse, too multi-layered to be completely achieved by any single group of performers. Hence, Vojtěch Dyk's performance impresses, intrigues and irritates in almost equal measure but on balance I am glad to have heard it. The 'star' performers here are the perfect musical pacing and sure control of Dennis Russell-Davies and the excellent playing of the various instrumental ensembles built around the ORF Vienna Radio SO. As mentioned, the technical presentation of this performance is first-rate even allowing for more audience noise than many recent 'live' recordings. My only technical query would be the odd place chosen to split the performance into two CDs. Capriccio have placed it between the Celebrant's impassioned cry of "Let us Pray" which leads immediately into the powerful Meditation No.3. Chandos’ split far more logically and with less of a drama-breaking jolt after Meditation No.2. The liner note is of genuine interest. For those who need only a single version of Mass in their collection, that must still be the original 1971 performance. This is now available as part of a 24-bit remastered 7 disc set from Sony of “Bernstein conducts Bernstein”. Even with no texts and no liner notes, this set is a compulsory purchase for anyone even passingly interested in Bernstein the composer. After that, opinions and choices are split. Alsop is probably the 'safe' choice, especially if listeners respond more positively to Jubilant Sykes than I do. This new version certainly deserves consideration for the quality of the instrumental contribution and Russell-Davies' unerring control. I cannot give this an unequivocal recommendation, then, but it is certainly a valuable addition to the Bernstein discography.
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