Philly ‘Mass’ On DG Is No Match For Bernstein Account


Bernstein: Mass. Kevin Vortmann, tenor; Westminster Symphonic Choir, Temple University Concert Choir, American Boychoir, Temple University Diamond Marching Band, Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor. Deutsche Grammophon 483 5009, two CDs. Total Time: 107:45.

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW — Deutsche Grammophon is battling Sony this year to see who can put out the biggest, heaviest, most comprehensive celebrations of the Leonard Bernstein centennial. Bernstein recorded extensively for both labels, but when it comes to Bernstein’s own music, DG has the advantage of having composer-conducted recordings of works written after he left Columbia (now Sony), not to mention Bernstein’s only complete recordings of his most famous musicals, Candide and West Side Story.

But DG was missing one crucial piece. There was no recording in its catalogue of Bernstein’s boldest, most all-embracing, most controversial work, Mass, whereas Sony has the composer’s own electrifying world-premiere recording, which has never gone out of print.

Well, DG has one now — a live recording of a production that one of its conducting stars, Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, led three years ago this month. For the sake of completeness in the label’s bid to record all of Lenny’s music, it’ll do. But no, it’s not going to displace the composer’s recording on the shelf.

Mass was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The first performance took place in the Opera House in September 1971 amid lavish publicity. As was often the case in his life, Bernstein had to put a rush on it to meet the deadline, raiding his trunk of aborted projects and occasional pieces for some of the material, and not really crystallizing the piece until Stephen Schwartz signed on as a co-librettist.

Bernstein, seen here in 1958, threw as many styles as he could into his  ‘Mass.’
(Don Hunstein, Sony Classical)

The reaction to Mass at the time usually depended on where you were coming from. The right thought it was an attack on the Nixon administration, the left thought it didn’t go far enough. With its mélange of several allegedly incompatible styles of music, it sailed above the heads of much of the pop audience that Bernstein was trying to reach, and under the noses of the classical literati, who mostly savaged it. Judging from reviews of productions in our time, it remains problematic for many writers who now find it irretrievably stuck in its period.

As for myself, I loved it from the start, in part because of my own background in many genres of music. Some of Bernstein’s most eloquent writing is here. The tunes stay with you; the shocks that careen from Stravinsky’s Les Noces to an atonal quadraphonic tape, a pop ballad, the Swingle Singers, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Hindemith (that’s just the first ten minutes), and on and on through music history still sound fresh and daring even in our age of anything-goes. Most crucially, Bernstein’s own musical signatures and grasp of form are stamped onto the myriad styles he corralled.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the Philadelphia production of ‘Mass’ in 2015.
(Copyright Pete Checchia, Philadelphia Orchestra)

Mass as recorded in Philly differs in certain respects from Bernstein’s recording. Schwartz revised the lyrics for some songs after the premiere, mostly for the better (there is a huge boo-boo at the end of DG’s printed libretto that co-credits additional lyrics to Stephen Sondheim instead of Schwartz). The Celebrant (Kevin Vortmann) is a tenor rather than a baritone; this changes the character into something more plaintive, an easier target for the milling, complaining street people who challenge his authority. The “blues” and “rock” singers are a little wilder than on previous recordings, and the genders of some parts are reversed.

Yannick fervently believes in the unifying power of ‘Mass’ (David Swanson)

A big problem is the sound. It’s curiously flat and distant, and there is a high level of hiss, as if someone had stuck a live microphone too close to the organ pipes. The orchestra is playing in the pit of the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, but this shouldn’t defeat engineers, who ought to know where to place microphones and how to apply corrective sound processing after the fact.

All of that said, the fervent faith Nézet-Séguin has in this piece does come through. His tempos are often urgent and generally don’t veer much from the composer’s example. The orchestral meditations burrow deeply into Mass’ darker side and the near-free-form freakout in triple meter just before the Celebrant’s nervous breakdown has all the raucous, jazzy exuberance you would want.

Cover of the first ‘Mass’ recording, led by Bernstein.

We can only guess what the full production was like from the few photographs within the booklet; it appears to be more or less standard for Mass. This leads me to believe that the performance might have been more effective as a video; the crummy sound wouldn’t be as big a factor. Maybe Philly lacked, or didn’t want to commit, the funds to film it.

In any case, Bernstein’s recording (re-released last year as part of the album Leonard Bernstein — The Composer on Sony 88985345312) remains the champ. Among its few challengers, the one that comes closest to Bernstein’s in realizing the complex, questioning, angry, ultimately hopeful essence of Mass is that of his former student Marin Alsop with the Baltimore Symphony on Naxos (8.559622-23).

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times. He is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.