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The Mess of 'Mass': Du bing, du bang, du bong

available at Amazon
Bernstein, Mass, R. Scarlata, Das Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich, K. Järvi

(released on February 24, 2009)
Chandos CHSA 5070(2)
Leonard Bernstein would have been 90 years old last year, and the tributes to the man continue with yet more recordings of his eccentric, kitschy, even (a little) annoying Mass. Bernstein was a great conductor, musician, and especially educational advocate for classical music, but many of his compositions have that nervous quality of all-nighter desperation (in Michael Steinberg's words, an "unashamed vulgarity [that] is so strongly derivative"). One of the most egregious examples is Mass, which gives both some fresh air in its occasional unpredictability but also a certain jejune superficiality -- in the latter, one is reminded of Robert Craft's suggestion that Bernstein should rename the work Mass: The Musical. Bernstein obviously thought along the same lines, subtitling the work a "theater piece."

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.


available at Amazon
Bernstein, Mass, J. Sykes, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, M. Alsop

(released on August 25, 2009)
Naxos 8.559622-23
Marin Alsop gave a large part of last year's season with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra over to a well-intended tribute to Leonard Bernstein, lest we forget that he was her mentor. She also staged several performances of Mass, including a commemorative one at the Kennedy Center, where the work was premiered in 1971. Now Naxos has released a live recording, compiled from two performances made at Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore last October, which Anne Midgette recently wrote about at her blog, too. Anne has written at some length about her love of Mass, an eloquent apologia that has really helped me understand why many people love this piece in a way that I do not and probably cannot. The only advantage of Alsop's version is that it even undersells the re-release of Bernstein's historic recording with Alan Titus, who went on to have an operatic career and in fact is still singing. With some really snappy tempi, she managed to make Mass even more compact than Kristjan Järvi, by a couple minutes, and far more than how Bernstein recorded it (at 118'31").

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.



Anonymous said...

If you're going to write an authoritative review, you should get your facts straight (and perhaps a new pair of ears). The Alsop/Sykes recording was made in formal sessions and NOT live at the Meyerhoff Hall.

This is an incredibly idiomatic and beautifully rendered performance which has somehow escaped Mr. Downey's aural receptors.

I realize that this is one man's opinion, but frankly, this guy just doesn't get it.

Charles T. Downey said...

Your first (minor) point is correct, and I have noted the error in my review. I assumed that the recording dates were the same as the live performances, because it was done at the Meyerhoff, but actually the recording was done shortly after those live performances (October 16 to 18). Little surprise that there is evidence of vocal strain all around.

If you like the recording, please say so but have the courage to add your actual name instead of writing anonymously. If you are somehow connected with someone involved in the recording, you should identify yourself as such.

By an impartial judgment of musical achievement, however, it would be hard to argue that the performance or the sound quality of the Naxos recording is better than the Chandos one. Even Anne Midgette, who has much kinder things to say about Marin Alsop's interpretation, said as much.

A.C. Douglas said...

Critic Martin Bernheimer had what I consider to be the definitive assessment of Bernstein's Mass.

Wrote Bernheimer:

On Friday, Marin Alsop led a cast of hundreds in a noble, possibly futile, attempt at aesthetic resuscitation. The object of her loving labour was Bernstein’s Mass. Profoundly showbizzy, pompously pious and pretentiously trendy, it was a mess when it inaugurated the Kennedy Center in 1971, and it still is....



Charles T. Downey said...

ACD, I loved that review, which I quoted in the roundup of Alsop reviews last fall. Right on target.

Anonymous said...

Clever! Just dis a worthy piece of music with a string of meaningless drivel and love of alliteration. If you don't like the work to begin with, you shouldn't be reviewing it.

I appreciate your printing my dissenting comments regarding your review. However, the notion that it is a minor oversight describing this recording as 'live' is fallacious.
There are many tell tale aspects of a live recording that you, as a reviewer - and Midgette - should have picked up on. A live staged performance of MASS would be riddled with choreographed activity on stage as opposed to a more Hi-Fi controlled rendering.
This recording has very clear cut imaging throughout with no anomalous distractions.

Your global comment about evidence of vocal strain all around obviously betrays any understanding of this idiom. These are not Palestrina Motets!
Incidentally, whether or not I have an association with this recording is entirely irrelevant.

Thank you and goodnight.

Charles T. Downey said...

A live staged performance of MASS would be riddled with choreographed activity on stage as opposed to a more Hi-Fi controlled rendering.

An excellent point, and you are quite right that it was a mistake I should not have made. It's true that a live performance of the work would have even more distractions.

Incidentally, whether or not I have an association with this recording is entirely irrelevant.


jfl said...

"Clever! Just dis a worthy piece of music with a string of meaningless drivel and love of alliteration. If you don't like the work to begin with, you shouldn't be reviewing it."

A.) Bernheimer might be pithy in his dismissal, but "meaningless drivel" it surely isn't. (Though that's an apt description of the Bernstein Mass. Throw in that god-awful (pun intended) Third Symphony, too.)

B.) The suggestion to not review a recording of a work one does not like is patently absurd. For one, no... I can't even bother to explain why it would be asinine to have everything only reviewed by those who liked the product.

And in any case there's enough spineless gushing going around on the blogs that we don't need to add to it on ionarts, too. We'd never claim that the world at large or ionarts-readers need to agree with our opinions, but if we didn't have opinions and aesthetic principles, why would anyone bother reading this site?

Surely there are Montovani-lovers, John Rutter-aficionados and Andrew Lloyd-Webber-admirers out there, too, but that doesn't mean we need to pretend that isn't trash?!

On that note: Did I mention that Nabucco stinks?

Thomas Hogglestock said...

I am always a little amazed at the emotion on both sides of the argument that Mass conjures in those who review it. Although I am a huge fan of the piece, I understand its shortcomings and can understand those who don't like it. There is no doubt that parts of Mass are a little silly musically and otherwise, but that doesn't keep me from absolutely loving this work.

I have been a fan of Mass since I first heard Bernstein's recording of it on vinyl back in college in the 80s. Alsop's peformance at the Kennedy Center last year was my first chance to hear the piece live and I was not disappointed. A few quirks here and there that surprised me but overall I loved the experience and would have gone to another performance had I not been there on the final night. On the other hand the music got so stuck in my head in the days and weeks following the performance that I began to beg for deliverance. But now, with time and (musical) therapy, I am ready to listen to Mass again.