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On CD: Critical "Mass"

One of the highlights of Marin Alsop's tenure at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the exuberant performances of Bernstein's "Mass" that played in Baltimore, New York and Washington in the fall of 2008, was issued this week on a Naxos CD.

I have already written about Mass so copiously that I've actually begun to spoil this piece for myself, and I have no need to weigh in yet again on its merits or failings, or on my own personal love of it. Suffice it to say that in my view "Mass: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers" is a colorful relic of its time, energetic, sloppy, full of melody, at times simplistic, at times naive, and worth embracing.

It's also moving into the canon after years of being more or less sidelined. Alsop's is the fourth complete recording of the work: the original cast album came out in 1971, and three new recordings have followed in the last five years. Kent Nagano -- who, like Alsop, studied with Bernstein -- was the first, in 2004, producing, with the DSO Berlin, a slick recording with lots of musical nuance and none of the ebullience of the original, and unfortunately featuring Jerry Hadley, well past his vocal prime, as the Celebrant. Next out, in February, was Kristjan Järvi's classicizing account, which treated the piece as a canonical score, making it sound lovely but distant, and giving food for thought about the excess of respect with which we treat composers of the past.
(read more after the jump)

Alsop's recording is certainly the best of the recent crop. As I said in my earlier write-up, she captures the sense of Bernstein's irreverent exuberance. She also, in effect, synthesizes the approaches of the other two recordings: the BSO sounds a lot cleaner and richer than the orchestra on the original-cast album, and at times there's a hint of classicizing care, a sense that the singers, in particular, are trying to make it as pretty as they can.

Admittedly, a couple of those singers come a little short of the mark. A cumulative effect of the spate of recent "Mass" recordings, for me, has been to increase my awareness that Bernstein made impressive vocal demands, even in his purportedly vernacular writing, and that on the original cast recording, these demands were on the whole pretty impressively met. It isn't only the stratospheric range for some of the female vocalists, but the high C written for the so-called "Rock Singer" in "I Believe in God," that spotlights how well that original cast did, and how strained this one sometimes sounds. Bernstein was writing for Broadway singers who can really use their voices, and that's a Fach that scarcely exists today. It's important to remember that "Mass" is not a Mass as such, but a theater piece; it's written for theatrical singers. It also needs a singer in the title role who can actually act. One particular liability with Jerry Hadley's performance on the Nagano recording is the sententiousness he brings to the role of the priest, declaiming his texts with a kind of phony holier-than-thou plumminess.

Jubilant Sykes, Alsop's Celebrant, has a hint of sententiousness at times as well. He's an interesting choice for the role -- Alsop had performed the piece with him before, at the Hollywood Bowl -- since he's a singer who combines classical training with gospel. Unfortunately, he had a cold during last fall's run of "Mass," and this badly compromises his performance (the recording was made live). It's thus difficult to give an objective evaluation beyond saying that it's an awful shame he was unable to bring his A game to an exciting project, especially since his hoarseness interferes with a few of the dramatic high points, like the Celebrant's extended mad scene, which drags on all the more when sung by someone who sounds like he's in danger of losing his voice.

As to how this recording stacks up against the original, which is also available on CD: I am not objective enough to say. The original will always have a place in my personal pantheon. All of the recent recordings reflect changes in the text which the very young Stephen Schwartz (fresh off of his success with "Godspell"), who wrote the often treacly lyrics, made in response to protest over the premiere. To those of us who know the original-cast recording by heart, the changes sound jarring; I don't hear that they're any better or worse than the original, but perhaps to some ears they are. (The Naxos booklet includes a fine essay by my sorely missed late friend and colleague Robert Hilferty, who loved "Mass," as a child, as much as I did.)

Listening to "Mass" so often in the last few years has helped me see that the piece I so loved at the age of six is pretty facile: it streams by fast and goes down easy. To my ear, there's a little more substance to the original recording, which transmits not only a gritty energy but a naivete -- an idea that music really can change the world -- that may be almost impossible to recreate. The prayer "Almighty Father," a simple but not-so-easy unison melody, has an unselfconscious awe for me in the original, a more manufactured prettiness in Alsop's version; that's the kind of thing I mean. But what I am hearing in the former is in part the sound of my own childhood, which, of course, no one can replicate. It doesn't diminish from the vigor of this new "Mass," which is one of Alsop's happiest achievements.

By Anne Midgette  |  August 27, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  CD reviews  
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Just a footnote to point out that the original Celebrant was Alan Titus, a classically trained singer (Juilliard, I believe), who went on to have some success in opera, mainly in Europe I think.

Posted by: wsheppard | August 27, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

IIRC (not always a sure bet these days...), didn't the son of long-time Washington Post music critic Paul Hume play the Celebrant in the original production of "Mass" at the Kennedy Center?

Posted by: pgaron | August 27, 2009 4:39 PM | Report abuse

I bought the original SQ quad LPs, listenend to them once, then put them aside. Ick. Patooi.

The piece has its good moments, but they aren't enough to offset the pretentious self-consciousness of the work.

Maybe I should give it a second chance, on a day when I have absolutely nothing else to do with my time (such as twiddling my thumbs).

Posted by: WilliamSommerwerck | August 27, 2009 4:53 PM | Report abuse

Re: questions about the original Celebrant: If you click on the first article of mine that I linked to in this post, you'll see mention of Alan Titus and my former relation to him. Alan Titus is, however, no relation to Paul Hume.

Posted by: MidgetteA | August 28, 2009 6:06 AM | Report abuse

pgaron, my memory is that it was Paul Hume's son who, as a boy soprano from the Washington Cathedral Society/School, sang with Alan Titus at the work's closing. I could be wrong, though. Someone local should know.

I listened, in university, several times to the original recording; and I recall that PBS showed the work in about 1974, with a chorus, I believe, from the Yale School of Music. (The work also toured to Vienna, Austria, at this time)

[In the early 1970s, I was more partial to Messiaen's "Transfiguration" (which I heard at the Kennedy Center in 1972 under Antal Dorati, and with cellist Janos Starker) and Penderecki's "The Entombment and Resurrection of Christ".]

Posted by: snaketime1 | August 28, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

P.S. Speaking of recordings and local orchestras, I should have added the our own National Symphony Orchestra and an excellent local chorus, under Antal Dorati, recorded the Olivier Messiaen "Transfiguration" at the then-new Kennedy Center concert hall for London's DECCA Head at this time.

Posted by: snaketime1 | August 28, 2009 9:21 AM | Report abuse

This podcast/blog is basically an ad, but I like it. Each episode is about 20 minutes.

Posted by: prokaryote | August 28, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Pgaron, it looks like you were almost correct.

“At the age of twenty-one, [Michael Hume] performed the role as celebrant in Leonard Bernstein's Mass in Vienna, Austria [1973], a performance which was subsequently broadcast on public television. He played the role more than sixty times, including the tenth anniversary production at the Kennedy Center in 1981. He has performed with Washington Opera, Atlanta Opera, Opera Company of Boston, Opera New England and Opera Ensemble of New York …”

[I hope that I wasn’t completely wrong, and that the boy soprano at the end of the premiere cast recording was a chorister from the Washington area. (Perhaps the son of a Washington choral conductor? One of Richard Wayne Dirksen’s three sons? )]

Posted by: snaketime1 | August 28, 2009 2:20 PM | Report abuse

For the sake of accuracy, this recording was NOT done live. It was recorded in sessions at the Meyerhoff Hall in Baltimore. Jubilant Sykes gives a remarkable performance which I don't believe has been adequately addressed in the above review.

Posted by: charlieives | September 3, 2009 12:43 AM | Report abuse

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