Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Credo in unum Bernstein

Marin Alsop's recording of Mass was the Recording of the Year, according to the Nereffid's Guide Awards, so I should say what I thought about it.
I don't know very much of Bernstein as a composer. I don't think it's very many years since Mass even registered in my consciousness. I think I must have seen something about it on television - I can't remember what the program might have been - and I was intrigued by the concept. Not surprising: although I'm an atheist, I was raised Catholic, so I'm always curious about presentations of religion that might have held my attention or seemed relevant to me before I realised how areligious I was.
The short version of how Mass came to be: Bernstein was commissioned to write something for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971; he combined a variety of classical and popular styles and enlisted Stephen Godspell Schwarz for the words; and it's not "a mass" but a so-called theatre piece called Mass. It has the various elements of the mass, but a lot more besides, and a protagonist in the form of the Celebrant, who struggles with doubt. The premiere got a half-hour standing ovation, but some critics hated it.
My first exposure to the work, aside from whatever I might have seen on that unremembered TV program, was Kent Nagano's 2004 recording on Harmonia Mundi, which I heard about 2 years ago. Ultimately I didn't like it. Schwarz's lyrics really get on my tits at times - the combination of pop-psychology with cheap rhymes just strikes me as cleverness rather than wit. They also seem very much of their time, too, as does the general popular idiom used by Bernstein. It's just so "early seventies" (whereas the classical side of things doesn't seem dated at all). Add to that the fact that the supposed "rock" and "blues" singers and the "street chorus" sound like nothing of the sort, and the whole thing's something of a mess. The humour falls flat, and the rest is unmoving.
But wait: that's my review of the Kent Nagano recording. In 2009 there were 2 new recordings, one from Kristjan Järvi on Chandos and Alsop's on Naxos, and one thing I noticed, especially with the reviews of the Alsop, was that there didn't seem to be a mixed opinion about Mass itself. I'd come to regard the work as having aimed high and missed, and certainly the sleeve notes in the Nagano version seemed at times a little defensive, but clearly opinion has moved on since its premiere. The reviews did mention flaws in Nagano's recording, and the reviews of Alsop were so glowing, that I knew I'd just have to give Mass a second chance.
And... wow. Half way through the first disc I knew what I'd been missing: passion. I have no idea what Marin Alsop's religious beliefs are, but I know she believes in Mass. She's helped by a much more present recording, uniformly better singers, and an utterly convincing Jubilant Sykes as the Celebrant. (I hadn't regarded Jerry Hadley as a weak link in the Nagano version, but some critics had, and I see where they're coming from now). The "seventies" idiom has been mostly toned down, the Street Chorus sound more like Catholics than Mormons, the rock and blues singers don't sound so Broadway, and the overall effect of these changes is that Schwarz's lyrics don't seem so trite anymore, because they appear to come from the heart rather than the brain. Basically this is an object lesson on how one performance can completely change your view of a work.
So, yes: Mass is a masterpiece, and this recording can deservedly be called the best of the year.

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