Bernstein Mass [Marin Alsop/Naxos]

0 of 5 stars

Mass – A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers

Celebrant – Jubilant Sykes
Asher Edward Wulfman (boy soprano)

Morgan State University Choir
Peabody Children’s Chorus

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop

Recorded 21 & 22 October 2008 in Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: November 2009
8.559622-23 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 44 minutes



So Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” has become an ‘American Classic’, courtesy of the Naxos series of which this release is a part.

This is now the third CD version (plus a DVD) to appear in recent years to stand alongside that of the composer’s conducting the original cast, last to be had on Sony but not, it would seem, currently available (in November 2009).

Marin Alsop might seem an obvious choice as conductor of this distinctive piece, with her having studied conducting with Bernstein and regarding him as a mentor.Indeed she has led performances in London (with the LSO) and in America.

She has the measure of the score and leads a perfectly good reading, drawing committed performances from the large resources needed for this ‘theatre piece for singers, players and dancers’ created for the opening of John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and premiered in September 1971.

Alsop conducts the orchestra of which she is Music Director (presumably with numerous guest musicians to play the extensive guitar and keyboard parts) plus the Morgan State University Choir providing the ‘formal’ choir. Its members sing securely, if without the fervour to be found from other choruses; perhaps this is due to their somewhat backward-sounding placement in the mix.

The chorus of ‘street people’ who comment on the traditional words of the Mass are named in the booklet, though their individual contributions – rather variable in quality – are not. The mixed-voice Peabody Children’s Chorus is not the boys’ choir requested by the composer; their part is heard to better effect by the Berkshire Boy Choir under Bernstein himself and, finest of all, the Tölzer Knabenchor under Kristjan Järvi on Chandos.

Jubilant Sykes provides vivid characterisation in the pivotal role of the Celebrant, though no-one quite conveys the varying moods of the part – exultant, pensive, demented – as does Alan Titus, the first executant of the part. Sykes can be very free with the rhythm, right from the opening ‘A simple song’ and quiet upper notes are often sung quasi-falsetto. All of ‘I go on’ is sung in this way, and his delivery, as recorded, can sound mannered to a degree.

Alsop has elected to use the original recordings for the crucial taped sections. Bernstein exploited the use of quadraphonic playback which was, in 1971, a very recent development. One could argue, therefore, that their use is ‘authentic’, but Järvi’s performance has new recordings, and superb they are too, especially in the vivid sound they are afforded.

And for all the fine qualities of Alsop’s reading, it is Järvi’s that I find the more convincing. There is curiously inhibited feel at times to this Baltimore performance which could, as indicated previously, be due to the recording which is nowhere near as vivid as Chandos’s. Marin Alsop sometimes feels rather inclined to ‘hold back’, which is the last thing one wants in a piece of this kind.

Texts are provided (though no translations of the Latin, Greek and Hebrew passages) and, at Naxos’s price, anyone coming new to the work will not, I think, be seriously disappointed. However, for a state-of-the-art modern recording and a really extraordinary performance, Kristjan Järvi’s on Chandos is the one to go for.

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