Bernstein, Mass, R. Scarlata, Das Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich, K. Järvi
(released on February 24, 2009)
Chandos CHSA 5070(2)
As such, Mass can be a fun listen, if far from a masterwork for the ages -- to mention it in the same breath with Britten's War Requiem, as one recent commenter did, is a stretch, to say the least. To be fair, it has always bothered me that for the Offertory for Mass, Bernstein chose the text De profundis clamavi, which is proper to the Requiem Mass, if not exclusively so. On one level, Mass is a Requiem Mass, as it seems to be about the "death" of the Catholic Mass, that is, the Latin Mass, in the face of the Paul VI "Novus Ordo" liturgy, promulgated in 1969. This may be what the soprano soloist is "mourning" in her "Thank You" trope: "And now, it's strange, / Somehow, though nothing much has really changed, / I miss the Gloria, I don't sing Gratias Deo / I can't say quite when it happened, / But gone is the thank you."
Anyway, as mentioned before, we are not fans of Mass and do not really recommend either of these recent recordings, other than to say that if you are looking to buy one for some reason, this one will do. Randall Scarlata gives an intense performance as the Celebrant, taking advantage of the same high part of his voice we heard him deploy in Schubert a few years ago. Three different choruses, the Company of Music, the Tölzer Knabenchor, and the Chorus Sine Nomine serve as the various congregational rabble. Kristjan Järvi, the youngest member of the Järvi clan to try his hand at conducting (son of Neeme, brother of Paavo, ex-husband of Leila Josefowicz), features his new music group, the Absolute Ensemble, on the popular music electronic bits, and they provide a viscerally exciting performance -- which is to say that the dudes totally rock out. The Chandos sound is, as usual, superb, and Järvi's upbeat approach ends up shaving over ten minutes off the total performance time of Bernstein's historic recording with Alan Titus, which is still the version to own, especially since it is nearly half the price of this recent release.
Bernstein, Mass, J. Sykes, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, M. Alsop
(released on August 25, 2009)
The problem is that, musically speaking, this is a far inferior version, and not only because Jubilant Sykes, who should make a Gospel-inspired, vernacular Celebrant, reportedly had a cold. Far too many of the vocal performances are inconsistent in terms of beauty of tone, intonation, and just hitting the correct notes. There is more energy and enthusiasm than polish, which is the case with the Bernstein recording, too, but there at least one hears the piece as it is best remembered and indeed heard, as an ossified relic of the Age of Aquarius. As is almost always the case with the attempt to incorporate popular music into this type of composition, Mass dated itself almost instantly and remains, in a sense, frozen in 1971 and is best heard just as it was then.
One unintended, unexpected, and totally random resonance with more recent history comes, by association, through the liner notes by Robert Hilferty, a highly regarded critic who recently committed suicide. Hilferty's documentary Stop the Church recorded the infamous demonstrations by the gay rights organization ACT UP at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. Although the facts have been disputed, during the course of that storming of a Mass celebrated by the equally outspoken Cardinal O'Connor, one protester took the Eucharist, presumably pretending to be a communicant, and threw it on the floor, which echoes the action of the Celebrant at the conclusion of Mass (a connection that is not mentioned by Hilferty in the course of his very informative essay). Sometimes life does imitate art.