Leonard Bernstein’s Mass : Newer Recordings

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The sources for the history and overview of Mass include Anthony Tommasini’s 2018 New York Times piece, “Is ‘Mass’ Leonard Bernstein’s Best Work, or His Worst?“, the work description on the Leonard Bernstein Office website and Wikipedia.

The controversy over Leonard Bernstein’s Mass began with its premiere in 1971. In his review for The New York Times on Sept. 9 that year, Harold C. Schonberg dismissed the piece as “fashionable kitsch,” “cheap and vulgar.” The same morning, Paul Hume in The Washington Post hailed the work as a “rich amalgamation of the theatrical arts” and “the greatest music Bernstein has ever written.”

I loved it when it was new. Nearly 50 years later, I still do, though I understand why it provokes exasperation. (Anthony Tommasini, “Is ‘Mass’ Leonard Bernstein’s Best Work, or His Worst?“, New York Times, July 13, 2018)

The stylistic palette of music that makes up Mass reflects the multifaceted nature of Bernstein’s career, with popular genres such as Broadway musicals, blues, rock, and jazz idioms appearing side by side with modern classical techniques, symphonic marches, choral hymns, and orchestral meditations, all blended into an organic, dramatic stage play with motifs that recur.

As in many Bernstein works, the subject is a crisis of faith. The text incorporates newly written lyrics which serve as as commentary on the Latin mass liturgy as well as express frustration with the limitations of dogma.

The origin of Mass can be traced to three sources:

  • the experience of conducting at Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1968 in St Patrick’s Cathedral;
  • the Beethoven bicentenary in Vienna in 1970;
  • and a small piece “A Simple Song” he wrote for Franco Zeffirelli’s film Brother Sun, Sister Moon before Bernstein withdrew from that project.

The cast consists of:

The Celebrant – The central character of the work, a Catholic priest who conducts the celebration of the mass.

Formal Choir – A mixed choir in upstage choir lofts who sing the Latin portions of the Mass.

Boys’ Choir – A children’s choir that processes on and off stage various times, performing alone, in antiphon, or in concert with the Formal Choir and the Street Singers.

Street Singers – Downstage and often performing around the Celebrant and the stage instrumentalists, a broad group of female and male singers representing the congregation (and occasionally the musicians), who variously participate in the prayers of the Mass, or alternately counter those prayers in a modern context.

Acolytes – Assistants to the Celebrant, who perform dances and altar assistance throughout the Mass.

The orchestra is divided into two parts: A pit orchestra of strings and percussion, plus two organs (a concert and “rock” organ); a stage orchestra of bass, woodwinds, electric guitars and keyboards, etc.  These stage instrumentalists are in costume and act as members of the cast.  The chorus of street people consists of singers and dancers.  Filling the upstage pews is a mixed choir in robes.

Aside from the lead soloist, The Celebrant, there are three rock singers and three blues singers, and about a dozen other singers with small solo parts taken from the Street People (ca. 45).  There are also soprano and bass soloists taken from the SATB robed choir (ca. 60) and a Boy Soprano from the Boys Choir (ca. 20).

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Provocative and innovative to some, appalling to others, Mass is first and foremost a celebration of human faith, but it also questions the relevance of ceremonial rituals and immutable “truths” in an increasingly faithless modern world. Audiences leapt to their feet at the premiere, reacting to a work that felt so anti-establishment and so real.

To me, Mass contains the essence of Bernstein as a complex man and artist. Sure, the music is intoxicating, but beneath the showiness on the surface is a profound statement of faith. Bernstein was a nimble composer. He moved comfortably between high art and pop culture, not confined by stylistic boundaries. This was long before “crossover” became trendy. (Marin Alsop, NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, “Revisiting Bernstein’s Immodest ‘Mass’“, September 27, 2008.)

From the outset Mass was controversial. The Roman Catholic Church did not approve of the liberties Bernstein had taken with the liturgy, while other prominent clergy declared their support for the piece.  Certain critics disapproved of the genre smörgåsbord, while others found the work to be inspired.  For the most part, audiences who experienced firsthand the communal journey of the composition were deeply moved.

Since it premiered, the ideas and dissent expressed in Mass, which were so potent in the volatile early-1970s, have become a more accepted part of the spiritual and political discourse.

Mass came full circle when, in 2000, Pope John Paul II requested a performance at the Vatican. However, for that performance the work was severely edited to the point of negating Bernstein’s conception.

Its liberal mixing of musical styles, too, has also become less shocking and more accepted in the musical sphere. Time has proved Bernstein prescient and Mass continues to be relevant as it enjoys performances around the world.

Mass was composed at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy and premiered in 1971 with great fanfare at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts in Washington.  Even if the misunderstanding persisted that Bernstein had composed his version of the Catholic mass the composer countered that his (I am paraphrasing) “Mass is not literally a ‘mass’; it is a work for theater with the title, ‘Mass'”.

Thirty-three years were to pass from the premier recording in 1971 before Kent Nagano took on the work again in 2004.  In the sixteen years since Nagano’s recording there have been four other recordings to follow, the latest released in March, 2020.

Leonard Bernstein, conductor; Alan Titus (Celebrant), Norman Scribner Choir, Berkshire Boy Choir, [unnamed] orchestra (1971, Columbia LPs, Sony CDs)

Screen Shot 2020-03-07 at 1.46.05 PMBernstein’s own 1971 original cast recording of Mass is where you should start if you want to get a true idea of the work. Bernstein hand-picked the cast, most notably Alan Titus for role of the The Celebrant. Titus is perfect for the role, combining a sweet singing voice with requisite acting skills and stage presence. Although the work is most often not staged, it is a work for the theater.

Titus delivers with a direct, unaffected manner – the sheer sincerity of his opening “Sing God a Simple Song” is profoundly moving, and the vast array of emotions in his concluding “Things Get Broken” aria is thoroughly convincing. The other soloists’ voices and expressions are so well suited to their roles that the association seems all but immutable (and indeed most of the subsequent recordings tend to emulate them).

When the recording was released Bernstein’s Mass boasted SOTA quadraphonic sound, in an attempt to simulate the spacial characteristics of the theater experience.  The 1970s engineering has held up over the years, but despite any flaws both acoustically or stylistically this recording must be accepted as the reference and the overall achievement as definitive.

Kent Nagano, conductor; Jerry Hadley (Celebrant), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Staats- und Domchor Berlin, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Pacific Mozart Ensemble (2004, Harmonia Mundi CDs)

Screen Shot 2020-03-07 at 1.46.30 PMIt took over 30 years, but it makes sense that Kent Nagano would be the conductor to first attempt the work in the wake of Bernstein’s original recording, he was after all Bernstein’s informal student the last six years of Bernstein’s life, from 1984 until 1990.

In the 1980s, three of the composer’s late works drew particular controversy: the musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976), the opera A Quiet Place (written in 1983 and later revised) and Mass (1971).  Nagano went on to record all three, and he has remained a devoted champion of Bernstein.  Hence, his version of Mass has credibility from the outset.

But Nagano wisely did not replicate Bernstein’s approach (something Marin Alsop, another Bernstein protégé, has been accused of), but made several critical decisions to distinguish his recording.

This is clear from the opening “Kyrie” with how he treats the prerecorded playback sections.  Although Nagano used the same recordings that Bernstein created, he blurred and saturated them in reverb as well as placed them well back in the mix.  This creates an heightened dichotomy between the tapes and the live instrumental groups, a decision which takes some getting used to but can be defended on artistic grounds.

Bernstein liked Jerry Hadley and cast him as the lead in Candide, but Jerry Hadley as The Celebrant is not as obvious of a choice. Mass is certainly not an opera, it more closely falls somewhere between an oratorio and Broadway musical. Given the stylistic range, any casting will be stronger in one section than another.  Nagano chose to emphasize the work’s classical side.

Hadley’s operatic style and at times wide vibrato do not seem right for “Hymn and Song: Sing a Simple Song”, but as our ears  become accustomed to Hadley’s voice and Nagano’s sound world, it ends up producing a pleasing performance.  By the end of the work I was totally convinced of Hadley’s performance.

Tempos are considerably different from Bernstein’s in places but for the “Dona nobis pacem” Nagano creates a stirring climax leading into The Celebrant’s vocal soloquy.

The other soloists are generally good despite not being native American speakers.

But where Nagano shines is in his handling of the orchestral sections, and throughout, his command of this sprawling work is impressive.

This recording took some time to grow on me, but the polish Nagano brings to the overall performance serves the work well.  This recording does not displace Bernstein’s as the reference recording but does offer an excellent alternative perspective and one well-worth hearing.

Kristjan Järvi, conductor; Randall Scarlata (Celebrant), Company of Music, Tölzer Knabenchor, Chorus Sine Nomine, Absolute Ensemble, Tonküstker-Orchester Niederösterreich (2006 [released 2009], Chandos CDs)

Screen Shot 2020-03-07 at 1.45.20 PM In his recording, Kristjan Järvi has fundamentally reconceptualized Mass.  This is something of a gutsy interpretive act which was only possible now that enough time has passed, and enough performances have occurred, for Bernstein’s Mass to be viewed anew, liberated from the context of its time.

Järvi leads with confidence, producing tight sound, while at the same time creating transparency of the complex orchestration.  The execution is sharp and bellicose, fueled by intrusive percussion and some questionable tempos.  His knowledge of jazz and rock have helped him knead the disparate elements into a convincing whole, but it is not to my taste.

If Bernstein emphasized the contrasting elements from which he assembled Mass as if to celebrate its eclecticism, Järvi smooths transitions between sections, thus helping to unify the opposing styles. He re-cut the prerecorded tapes to emphasize his overall blended aural image. His knowledge of the music is obvious, his direction is best with balancing orchestral forces, choirs and rock instruments.  However, the boy choir sounds ragged overall.

Randall Scarlata’s Celebrant leans in an operatic direction and sounds a bit stiff to me.   The ending sections are taken too fast in my opinion, creating a manic sensation that does not produce the written climax, but undercuts its effectiveness. In his “Things Get Broken” finale, Järvi’s tempi are so quick Scarlata can barely get the words out.  The other, presumably German, soloists do not mangle American pronunciation, although the nuances of the American idioms (both in the text and music)  may not have been entirely within their grasp.

Possibly not the worst recording but there are at least two, maybe three, recordings that are excellent, and ones I’d recommend before this one.  Järvi’s take is valuable for an alternative interpretation, and while none of its flaws overwhelm its value, with six recordings there is no reason to spend much time with this one.

Marin Alsop, conductor; Jubilant Sykes (Celebrant), Morgan State University Choir, Peabody Children’s Chorus, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (2009, Naxos CDs)

Screen Shot 2020-03-07 at 1.43.07 PMAlsop’s recording of Mass is very faithful to Bernstein’s own 1971 original.  She used Bernstein’s prerecorded tape sections in an unaltered manner, and kept to his tempi throughout.  But that’s hardly a surprise coming from a conductor who wears her status as a Bernstein protégé on her sleeve.  However, it does beg the question: since we still have access to Bernstein’s recording, what is the purpose of Alsop’s, which adheres so closely to her model?

The answer is that while similarities abound, this is a distinct recording and stands on its own merits.  The devil, or in this case the angels, are in the details.

Her vocalists sing with enthusiasm and excellent enunciation, the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra are at the top of their form, the recording is dynamic and detailed, and Jubilant Sykes is a Celebrant buoyed by musical credentials in both jazz and opera, whose warm, highly expressive voice is a commanding presence throughout.

Where most performances of Mass get out of hand is the last 30 minutes or so, from the “Agnus Dei”, especially from the “Dona nobis pacem” through to the end.  There is a tendency for the “Dona nobis pacem” crescendo-accelerando to become exaggerated and raucous (as was the case with Järvi ).

Also, the Celebrant’s section where he drops the sacraments is often done as a “mad scene.” I don’t think this is right, and Jubilant Sykes strikes just the right tone, i.e. somewhat sarcastic, irreverent, saddened, harshly truthful, but in control throughout.

The last section is a close canon for a soprano and tenor, then expanding to include the Street Singers, before reducing again to soprano/tenor and finally between the boy soprano and The Celebrant, ending with the choral hymn “Almighty Father”.  When done right these three sections bring Mass to a rousing climax and moving catharsis.

In all of these sections Alsop’s recording is about as close to perfect one can attain, at least in my opinion.  Alsop’s Mass has no defects and is easily the best newer recording alongside Bernstein’s original.  So while Bernstein’s recording is essential, our appreciation and enjoyment of Mass can only be expanded by others’ performances, especially when the recording is as good as this one.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor; Kevin Vortmann (Celebrant), Philadelphia Orchestra, Westminster Symphonic Choir, Temple University Concert Choir, The American Boychoir, Temple University Diamond Marching Band (2018, DG)

Screen Shot 2020-03-07 at 1.41.51 PM This recording was released in 2018 as part of the centenary celebration surrounding the composer’s 100th birthday.  The recording, drawn from Verizon Hall four concerts between April 30 and May 3, 2015, has tremendous energy.  This recording succeeds by sounding contemporary. Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s theatrical strengths bring the army of musicians together for a cohesive and meaningful performance.

Bernstein, says Nézet-Séguin, “showed all of us musicians today the way to be a musician in the world in our time, but he was ahead of his time”. ‘Mass’ (1971), embodying his creative voice at its most eclectic, has gone from being excoriated (by ‘New York Times’ critic Harold C. Schonberg) as “little more than fashionable kitsch” to being considered a masterpiece, the utterance that most plainly expresses Bernstein’s own creed as man and musician.

First up, it’s good at last to have new tapes for the pre-recorded sections after years of making do with the originals which had degraded so badly. And Nézet-Séguin has a very talented young artist in Kevin Vortmann for the all-embracing role of the Celebrant – he has the authority, the vocal beauty and most importantly the vocal mix to facilitate an effortless transition from falsetto to head-voice.

Along with The Philadelphians and Yannick, the recording features the Westminster Symphonic Choir, the Temple University Concert Choir, the American Boychoir, Temple University Marching Band.

Vortmann proved an exceptionally good choice for this central role: secure at baritonal depths, his tenor soared purely and with immaculate dynamic control into the part’s many challenges. He was slightly stagy in the Celebrant’s spoken lines, but his singing had emotional truth. The “blues” and “rock” singers are a little wilder than on previous recordings, and the genders of some parts are reversed.

The fervent faith Nézet-Séguin has in this piece does come through. His tempos are often urgent and generally don’t veer much from the composer’s example. The orchestral meditations burrow deeply into Mass’s darker side and the near-free-form freakout in triple meter just before the Celebrant’s nervous breakdown has all the raucous, jazzy exuberance you would want.

At the time of the 2015 Verizon Hall recording, Yannick said it was always one of his dreams to conduct Bernstein’s Mass.  That dream has been fulfilled and in fine form.

Dennis Russell Davies, conductor; Vojtěch Dyk (Celebrant), Wiener Singakademie, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Schülerinnen und Schüler der Opernschule der Wiener Staatsoper, Company of Music (2020, Capriccio)

Screen Shot 2020-03-07 at 1.43.58 PMThe name Leonard Bernstein usually comes up when there is talk of reconciliation between popular genres and serious music.  Bernstein was an enormous talent and mastered styles as far-flung as Fats Waller to Schoenberg; and his compositions likewise spanned stylistic extremes.

And yet he has only walked the entire stylistic spectrum in a single work: in Mass, the great full-length work with which the RSO Vienna under its ex-chief conductor Dennis Russell Davies staged for the highlight of their 2018 program, the Bernstein centennial.

Over the years, it’s been pretty well served on disc. Bernstein’s own original-cast recording, anchored by Alan Titus’s magnificent Celebrant, remains definitive, followed closely by Marin Alsop’s 2008 account which  boasts a fine lead in Jubilant Sykes, and with Kent Nagano in between.

In 2018 a live performance was staged by Dennis Russell Davies’s with the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, the recording of that concert was released in 2020.

Up to now the role of The Celebrant has been cast with singers whose style was coming out of the Broadway tradition as well as straight opera singers.  I prefer the Broadway approach since much of the music falls well out of the operatic singer’s purview.  But Jerry Hadley did a good job with the role, so it is not a doctrinaire either/or calculation.

Vojtech Dyk’s is not an operatic voice, and not really Broadway either, more of a traditional pop/rock stylist.  Which also suits the music well.

Davies has got a fantastic orchestra in the ORF ensemble, which takes to Bernstein’s flamboyant, extroverted orchestral writing with élan. They’ve got his style in their veins: “Prefatory Prayers” snaps, the three orchestral “Meditations” surge (the “De profundis” proves particularly weighty), and the writing for electronic and percussion instruments rarely fails to impress for either depth or color, be that in the “Confiteor” or “Gospel Sermon” (the rhythm section in the latter is terrific).

I had a mixed response to this recording, there is much to like but also the recording is undermined by some critical flaws.  My first complaint would be Davies’s tempi, which  are often on the slow side leading to an anemic energy level.  This is the opposite of Jarvi, who errs on fast side.

Vojtech Dyk’s Celebrant, for instance, doesn’t lack for color or agility but his performance either falls victim to poor engineering, sounding too far back in the mix or, by comparison to Titus or Sykes, a sufficient amount of energy.

Similarly, other solo numbers, like the first set of tropes (“I Don’t Know” and “Easy”), feel hesitant and reined in. The irreverent “Gospel Sermon” never finds a firm stylistic or rhythmic footing (the “goddam good” refrains need much stronger emphasis). Ditto for the patchy solo in “I believe in God” and “You said you’d come again.”

As for the ensemble numbers, the “Thrice-Triple Canon” and “In nomine Patris” near Mass’s beginning lack for rhythmic spark. The “Sanctus,” which, contrary to Bernstein’s own reading, is here weirdly turgid. So is the climactic “Agnus Dei,” which requires a more uniform bite from singers and instrumentalists; it never locks in here as it does in Bernstein’s (or Alsop’s) performances.

Mass is one of the late 20th-century’s most provocative and thought-provoking pieces.  It deserves a good performance, which is bound up with the cast.  Davies’s efforts despite some lethargic tempos are laudable and, at least instrumentally, he matches (or exceeds) much of what came before.

But his recording is not among the ones I’d recommend.

If I were to rank the recordings, here’s my list:

  1. Bernstein
  2. Alsop
  3. Nézet-Séguin
  4. Nagano
  5. Järvi
  6. Davies

Bottom-line: I hope this article will inspire people who up to now have been warned off from listening to Mass.  No matter which recording, you really can’t go wrong with any of them despite my ranking, the work is a treat.

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