Album review: After fifty years, Bernstein’s Mass comes off as radical as ever

Premiered as a part of the Kennedy Center opening gala in Washington D.C. fifty years ago, Leonard Bernstein’s theatre piece for singers, players and dancers, Mass (1971) constitutes, perhaps, what could be called the composer’s magnum opus. Based on the liturgy of the Roman Mass, with additional texts by Stephen Schwartz and Bernstein himself, Mass is an all-encompassing entity, portraying the musical and societal realities of the era as well as the soul and spirit of its composer.

In conjunction with the stage production, Columbia Records caught Mass on master tapes in a series of studio sessions at Kennedy Center and New York City between August and October 1971, for an album presentation, first released on 24 November, less than three months after the world premiere.

In many ways, the score of Mass comes off as Bernstein’s opus summum, weaving, layering and often crashing together multitude of musical idioms from the composer’s output, written for the stage and the concert hall alike. Subtitled simply as theatre piece, Mass defies categorization. The choral writing extends those of Symphony No. 3, Kaddish (1963) and Chichester Psalms (1965), whereas solo vocals and ensembles have their starting point in the realm of the composer’s Broadway shows.

The orchestra, divided between strings, electric organs, harp and percussion in the pit and the onstage ensemble of winds, brass, percussion, electric guitars and bass, appears in various line-ups from marching bands to full-scale symphonic setting, with smaller jazz, pop, gospel and funk groups incorporated.

In addition to the large vocal and instrumental forces at play, the four-hundred-page score calls for substantial pre-recorded parts as well, comprising of choral and percussion passages, presented via quadrophonic sound-system. In terms of album presentation, the spatial aspects of Mass provide quite a challenge, as several musical strata unravel simultaneously. To make the stereo recording intelligible, some compromises have been made in terms of miking and two-channel presentation of the quadrophonic materials, resulting in an album master best served by loudspeakers rather than headphones.

Coinciding with the fiftieth anniversaries of the stage and album premieres, Sony Classical has re-released Bernstein’s first recording of Mass in a two-disc book-type edition with proper liner notes, full libretto, complete vocal and instrumental credits as well as extensive original photography, including facsimile pages from the autograph full score. Since the late eighties, the Bernstein recording has been available on CD in various editions; most recently as a part of Sony Classical’s 2018 box set covering the composer’s oeuvre, as recorded on Columbia. While the owners of the latter set can certainly resist the urge to buy disc doubles of the performance itself, the new album presentation provides content and eye-candy enough to make the monetary inconvenience worthwhile.

Over the past twenty years or so, several other recordings of Mass have entered the market, some of them more successful than others. While many of these recordings provide more up-to-date audio quality and engineering, none of them quite matches the extraordinary intensity and dedication of Bernstein’s original cast recording, which still comes off as the single most radical account of Mass documented on disc.

There are several branches of radicalism at play in Mass. In retrospect, Bernstein’s exquisite amalgam of musical styles, breaking free from stylistic puritanism of a lot of postwar modernism and transcending way beyond superficial crossover, can be viewed as catalyst and enabler for musical works to come, one of the most notable examples being Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos (2000). While Bernstein’s Bühnenweihfestspiel could not be further removed from that of Wagner’s Parsifal (1877-82), both works are pivotal in their onstage quest of faith.

At the time of the premiere, the Mass’s juxtaposition of credo and non credo provoked controversy. Yet, twenty nine years after the first stage production, Mass was performed at the Vatican, by the invitation of Pope John Paul II. There was political controversy as well, as the Nixon administration was deeply troubled by Mass’s anti-war overtones ahead of the premiere, to a point where the services of ”a good Jesuit” were deemed necessary in examining the Latin text for possible attempts to embarrass the President by promoting the agenda of peace while the Vietnam War was raging on.

As seen from today’s perspective, the key issues tackled by Bernstein in Mass appear as acute now as they were back in 1971. The world around us has hardly become neither united nor peaceful, and as one climate conference after another comes to nothing, the looming natural disaster has crossed our doorstep, taking abode in our living rooms. Thus, the multi-layered text and commentary of Mass, sung in Latin, Hebrew and the American vernacular still resonates loud and clear.

Musically, the premiere recording sounds as vibrant as ever, with Bernstein and the extensive forces at play delivering a powerhouse, in-your-face rendition of the score. Due to its avalanche of clashing musical styles, Mass is by no means a comfortable affair, nor is it aiming to be. Yet, its genuine shock value, rooted in sometimes ruthless juxtapositions of establishment highbrow and the vernacular, is the very root of the score’s acute freshness. As a listener, one is not meant to take it all in without protest. Instead, in the course of the listening process, the struggles penned down into the score become personal ones, as does the hard-won peace of the profoundly moving conclusion.

On the Sony remaster, Alan Titus’s compelling portrayal of the full emotional scope of his role of the Celebrant comes off wonderfully, although the occasional listener may find some of the overbalanced post-production, a trademark of the era, quaint. On the other hand, a lot of the recording’s commanding impact is due to its aural immediateness, perhaps best demonstrated by the rousing roughness of the rock organs, electric guitars and bass.

From the fabulous Street People soloists to the full choral forces of the Norman Schibner Choir and the Berkshire Boy Choir, the entire cast does a terrific job in delivering Bernstein’s dazzling vocal lines, from the utmost intimacy of the folk-like solo settings to the witty flamboyance of the Credo tropes, not to mention all the hardcore modernism and dexterous choral rhythms involved.

In similar vein, the orchestral apparatus appears as veritable chameleon under Bernstein, re-inventing itself again and again in various permutations and styles, side by side with the vocal and choral performers. In the two purely instrumental numbers, that is to say the first two Meditations, the orchestra picks up the narrative with its intense reflection on diverse musical ideas, encompassing fragments from several vocal numbers as well as a brotherly Beethoven quote.

Unlike the original stage production, the premiere recording was an unanimous success from the start, yielding to notable sales figures and enthusiastic critical responses alike. A notable re-release, the latest Sony album issue is a welcome one indeed, especially as the previous standalone disc presentations have ran out of print a good while ago.

The Norman Schibner Choir

The Berkshire Boy Choir

Orchestra

Leonard Bernstein, conductor

Alan Titus, baritone (Celebrant)

John D. Anthony, Margaret Cowie, David Cryer, Ed Dixon, Eugene Edwards, Tom Ellis, Joy Franz, Judy Gibson, Corl Holl, Lee Hooper, Larry Marshall, Gina Penn, Mary Bracken Phillips, Carole Prandis, Benjamin Rayson, Marion Ramsey, Neva Small, Louis St. Louis, Barbara Williams, Ronald Young, Linda Kent, Hector Mercado, John Parks, Gail Reese, Kelvin Rotardier, Dudley Williams and Morton Winston, singers

Leonard Bernstein: Mass (1971) – A theatre piece for singers, players and dancers

Recorded at John F. Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Wahington D.C. and Studio B, 49 East 52nd Street, New York City on August, September and October 1971

Sony Classical 19439890562 (2021), 2 CDs

© Jari Kallio

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