Leonard Bernstein Mass [Kent Nagano/Harmonia Mundi]

0 of 5 stars

Mass – A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers

Celebrant – Jerry Hadley

Street Chorus – Pacific Mozart Ensemble [Soloists: Kate Berenson, Benjamin Grant, Bryan Matheson, Tom Carpenter, Angela Doctor, John Paddock, Jim Hale, Benjamin Scott, John Stenzel, Marc Accornero, Kimberly Keeton, Doug Boyd, Eric Lipsitt, Kathie Longinotti, Frazier Stevenson, Lark Coryell, Larry Rose, Nile Norton, Katy Stephan, Eric Freeman]

Choir – Rundfunkchor Berlin [soloists: Isabelle Voßkühler, René Voßkühler, Michael Timm]

Boys’ Choir – Staats- und Domchor Berlin

Boy soloist – Julian Frischling [from Dresdner Kreuzchor]

Tobias Lehmann (percussion; special effects)

Sigurd Brauns (organ)

Pre-recorded musicians

Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Kent Nagano

Recorded in November 2003, Philharmonie, Berlin

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: December 2004
HMC 901840.41 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 46 minutes

Perhaps one way to approach what is probably Leonard Bernstein’s most controversial work is to consider its subtitle: “A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers”. For Mass is no straightforward setting of a liturgical text (though liturgical texts are at its heart), but, instead, is a literal enactment of the ritual of the Mass, with commentary and questioning provided along the way. Bernstein had previously confronted theological questions and Man’s relationship with God in his ‘Kaddish’ Symphony (No.3) of 1963.

A focal point in Mass is the figure of the Celebrant whose role, naturally, is to lead the ceremony, but who finds it impossible to provide the ‘answers’ to the questions posed by his ever more hostile congregation. Eventually, he loses control of both the proceedings and himself, destroys the symbols of the Mass and retreats. The people realise they need to find tranquillity – and answers – from within themselves, rather than relying solely on external rituals, before peace can spread into the world. The Celebrant is welcomed back, presumably to resume his role with a new-found maturity.

Of course, this is a simplistic résumé of a conception that is both unique and, more than thirty years on from its creation and performance as the inaugural work for the “John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts” in Washington, D.C., still undeniably troubling and thought-provoking.

Mass is a work which is firmly of its time. Whilst ‘Watergate’ and the public humiliation of Richard Nixon were still in the future – though not far – the Vietnam war ensured that America was not at ease with itself during the early 1970s. Sad to reflect, therefore, that Mass might still have direct relevance today, with its insistent demands of “Dona nobis Pacem” forming a powerful musical and dramatic climax.

These words, incidentally, discomfited agents sent by the Nixon administration to ‘spy’ on the rehearsals for Mass. In the air of paranoia which permeated the Washington of that time, it was thought that ‘coded messages’ had been set by Bernstein and which, if later discovered, might have embarrassed President Nixon who, in the end, did not attend any performance of Mass. It was, indeed, the timeless – and universal – plea for peace that set alarm bells ringing in high places.

The performing forces required for Mass are considerable, including a mixed-voice choir, its primary function being to sing the liturgical texts in Latin. This choir is occasionally supplanted – or supported – by a boys’ choir. The so-called “Street Chorus”, representing ‘everyday’ personages provides a further choral body, and from its ranks are drawn soloists who sing in English the commentaries (designated “Tropes” in the score) upon the traditional words.

Many of the “Tropes” utilise vernacular musical styles, such as rock and blues, thus underlining their separateness from the Latin texts which are given settings in what might be termed a ‘contemporary classical’ style, often including a high degree of dissonance and occasional hints of serial technique.

These different ‘layers’ of singers also have separate accompaniments. A pit orchestra of strings, organs and percussion usually – though not exclusively – accompanies the liturgical settings, whilst an on-stage ensemble of wind, brass and percussion, supplemented by ‘rock’ instruments, supports the “Street Chorus”.

It may be seen that a possible influence on Bernstein’s Mass is Britten’s “War Requiem”, in which the Wilfred Owen poems provide commentary on the traditional words of the Requiem Mass. A further musical dimension is the incorporation of taped music projected through quadraphonic loudspeakers placed in the four corners of the theatre. In one instance, “In nomine Patri”, the taped sounds emerge from distant, offstage speakers.

It is with the taped music of “Kyrie eleison” (Lord have mercy) that Leonard Bernstein’s Mass begins. Soloists, accompanied by percussion, sing independently – melodically and rhythmically – of one another creating a confusion of sound that is halted by a single guitar chord and introduces the Celebrant.

Harmonia Mundi have re-used the tapes made for the first production, and whilst there is no problem in terms of sound-quality, this new performance might have taken the opportunity to re-record this music, confident though the original singers are in their virtuosic flights.

“A simple song” sings the Celebrant, in total contrast to the whirling taped music, in an expressive diatonic melody – originally intended for Franco Zeffirelli’s film on the life of St Francis of Assisi. Like certain other portions of Mass (and, indeed, in numerous other Bernstein scores), the composer found a place for music originally intended for different contexts and occasions.

Jerry Hadley’s tenor is in itself attractive and, generally, a pleasure to listen to. But I couldn’t help wondering whether he was wholly at ease – here and elsewhere – with the eclectic nature of the music the Celebrant is given to sing. He seems uncertain as to what ‘style’ to adopt, whether it should be a straightforward ‘classical’ (for want of a better word) approach, or something closer to that used purely for the musical theatre. The young Alan Titus – on the first recording, conducted by the composer – captures the flavour of the score ideally. Throughout, his performance bespeaks utter conviction. I am sorry to report that the same cannot be said of Jerry Hadley – fine artist though he undoubtedly is. Hadley misreads the rhythm on the first setting of “Blessed is the Lord”, and the calm poise which should be evoked through this untroubled music is not conveyed here – though the quietly attentive accompaniment is well-realised, with a superb flute solo.

Following a taped interlude with its infectious bell imitations via ‘scat’-singing, the “Street Chorus” makes its first appearance, heralded by a rumbustious march, in the “Prefatory Prayers”. Collectively the Pacific Mozart Ensemble makes a stirring impression and the infectious joie de vivre of this scene is conveyed with considerable exhilaration. We also encounter the excellent boys of the Staats- und Domchor Berlin, and Julian Frischling, the assured boy-soprano soloist.

The “Thrice – Triple Canon” – a setting of “Dominus vobiscum” (The Lord be with you) – which follows is unfortunately marred, in this performance, by the second entry being a bar late, so the whole thing is ‘out’ by one bar. After the distant, taped “In nomine Patris”, the choir sings a quiet and moving chorale – “Almighty Father” – and the intonation of the Rundfunkchor Berlin is admirable here and throughout.

The music acquires a darker hue for the “Confession”, where, following an anguished setting of the Latin text, with its bi-tonal harmony and percussion explosions, we have the first of the “Tropes” – a rock number entitled “I don’t know”. The notion of a trope is actually medieval in origin. These are, in effect, interpolations into the traditional liturgical texts, amplifying the latter’s sentiments.

In Bernstein’s Mass, the “Tropes”, invariably, articulate doubts or questions, and in this sequence, rock singers alternate with blues vocalists, speculating on the validity and value of the act of confession. They are given here with some character, though the first blues song (“Easy”) is spoilt by an early entry from the soloist.

The next liturgical text – “Gloria” – is preceded and followed by an orchestral meditation. Here, the virtues of Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester may be appreciated, with some especially fine string playing. In the first meditation Nagano is – surprisingly – rather more measured than the composer.

The “Gloria Tibi”, for boys and Celebrant, is taken too quickly for the playful 5/8 metre to register properly, whilst the following mixed-chorus “Gloria in excelsis” lacks the powerful thrust which is essential for this rapid-fire setting to make its full effect. The following “Trope”, sung by the “Street Chorus” to the identical “Gloria in excelsis” music, contains some of the lines which originally caused heckles to rise – “Half of the people are stoned/And the other half are waiting for the next election”. This was supplied by Paul Simon, whilst the other non-liturgical texts are by the composer and Stephen Schwartz, who had just made his mark as the composer/lyricist of the musical “Godspell”.

“Half of the people…” is cut off by a phrase marked fff to be played by “all electronic instruments”. In this Berlin performance, it is delivered feebly by a weedy-sounding organ.

The following “Trope” – “Thank you” – is a touchingly reflective moment, but Isabelle Voßkühler does not sound at ease in its gentle idiom, and is sometimes under the note.

The second “Meditation” is just as well played as its predecessor, though the hint of impatience at its climax is regrettable.

Soloists, chorus and accompaniment in the subsequent “Epistle” and “Gospel-Sermon” are all fine, though Larry Marshall, from the original cast, is a more volatile, manic Preacher.

A small textural point – Nagano includes the optional ‘extra’ bar at the end of the “Gospel-Sermon”, which is provided for when and if this number is performed separately.

The Latin text of the “Credo” is declaimed by taped chorus and percussion, and I would have preferred the sound to have been more immediate, as it is in Bernstein’s own recording.

The various ‘interruptions’ which question the veracity of the “Credo” lack the requisite vehement and biting quality, and the culmination, where the soloists interpolate their lines over ever-more frenzied percussion, sounds tame, though some amends are made by a strong performance of the final “Trope” in this section – “I believe in God” – in which Eric Freeman proves to be a fervent soloist.

The Psalm “De Profundis” is divided into two parts. The first being an especially dark and troubled setting for the choir with brass and percussion, and the second culminating in a wild dance based on the earlier “In nomine Patri” section. This music is powerfully performed, and Nagano finds just the right tempos and intensity.

Jerry Hadley sounds at his most convincing and comfortable in the retrained “Our Father” and “I go on”, though, oddly, the piano in the former drops out after a few bars instead of staying with the voice in unison throughout.

The boys sing freshly in the radiant “Sanctus”, at the end of which is a rare tutti, but the sense of culmination is not conveyed and Nagano launches – and continues – the defiant “Agnus Dei” at too fast a tempo for a sense of remorselessness to be possible.The repeated urgings of “Dona nobis Pacem” do not have the inexorable tread the composer surely intended.

At the climax of this, the Celebrant hurls the sacred vessels to the ground – which silences the unruly crowd – and then reflects on his deeds (and on the whole proceedings) in what is, to all intents and purposes, an operatic ‘mad scene’ influenced in no small measure by the equivalent scene in Britten’s “Peter Grimes”. Again, in more inward moments, Hadley can be affecting, but the more angst-ridden outbursts do not sound as spontaneous as they do from Alan Titus.

After what can be seen as a kind of ‘breakdown’, the Celebrant disappears and the people gradually re-awaken and begin a new song of praise. “Sing God a secret song” is the solo boy’s urging, in an echo of the Celebrant’s first appearance. Soon the whole company is singing “Lauda Laude”, and chains of embrace form. The Celebrant re-appears, the ensemble wishes him peace, and the “Almighty Father” chorale provides the concluding music for Mass.

I think, in this performance, it is a mistake to have the closing spoken words after the music has finished. These should be heard over the final quiet “Amen”.

Thus concludes only the second complete recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. I have alluded to the composer’s own, and this was made at the time of the first production, with the cast and personnel assembled for it. It is now part of the “Bernstein Century Edition” on Sony SM2K 63089 and is an essential document. The cast – not least Alan Titus’s authoritative and sympathetic Celebrant – is almost without exception stronger than that gathered for Nagano; and the composer’s own burning conducting is most likely unsurpassable.

But I am glad to have heard this performance, since much of the time it glows with a conviction of its own and, thereby, acquires its own validity. Harmonia Mundi seem reluctant to state it, but I understand it was recorded live, and so the odd blemish which would (hopefully) have been rectified in the studio is allowed to pass by.

Leonard Bernstein’s Mass is never likely to become a staple of the repertoire – indeed it awaits a fully professional performance in the UK, although Marin Alsop and the LSO are scheduled to rectify this on 5 June 2005 in the Barbican.

The composer himself never conducted Mass live, and it is a pity he did not return to it, as he did with other works of his, later in life. He wrote additional string parts for a Vienna State Opera production, but Nagano does not include them.

Nevertheless, I commend Kent Nagano’s advocacy of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, and will be pleased to return to this performance, even if the composer as conductor, inevitably and understandably, makes the stronger case for this extraordinary work.

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