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Bernstein: Mass / Kent Nagano, Et Al

Release Date: 01/11/2005 
Label:  Harmonia Mundi   Catalog #: 801840   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Leonard Bernstein
Performer:  Jerry HadleySigurd BraunsTobias Lehmann
Conductor:  Kent Nagano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Cathedral ChorusDeutsches Symphonie-Orchester BerlinPacific Mozart Ensemble,   ... 
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Multi 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

When Bernstein’s Mass was first performed and recorded more than 30 years ago, listeners were divided (unequally) between those who detested it and those, more sympathetic, who were merely embarrassed. Part of the problem lay with the kind of near sacrilegious self-indulgence that had also stained the “Kaddish” Symphony, keeping it from attaining the popularity of, say, Chichester Psalms and Age of Anxiety. But Mass was also burdened with what seemed to be trendy politics and an awkward fusion of a high-minded classical idiom (most obvious in the “Meditations”—later extracted and revised as a separate concert work) with more vernacular outbursts. Patches of sentimentality and of soap-opera Gothic (e.g., the opening of the “Confiteor”) Read more didn’t help. The work has kept a low profile since then—but this spectacular new recording gives us an excuse to reconsider its merits.

Granted, it’s not an entirely new recording of the piece. The score includes a fair amount of pre-recorded material, to be played on speakers surrounding the audience; Nagano has re-recorded some of this material, but has also incorporated some of the original tapes. Granted, too, it’s not a new recording of entirely the same piece. Although there’s no discussion of editorial issues anywhere in the program notes, many of the words have been changed (listen, for instance, to “Easy”)—producing, in at least one place, a significantly different effect. At one climax of the “Agnus Dei” (measure 154), the Celebrant in the original recording (and in the 1971 vocal score) shouts out “Panem!” (“bread”) instead of “Pacem” (“peace”)—a shocking substitution underscored, in the libretto of the CD versions I have, by having the word printed in capital letters. The text on the Nagano recording is less provocative: the Celebrant merely says the expected “Pacem.” There are some musical changes, too: the drums now enter “Almighty Father” in measure 8, not measure 4; Nagano restores some of the cut introduced into the taped Kyrie in the original recording.

Still, these editorial issues are minor—what really matters is that Nagano has offered a persuasive performance (perhaps even more persuasive than Bernstein’s) of a piece well worth a fresh evaluation. To deal with performance issues first: as compelling and secure as Jerry Hadley is, one can argue that Alan Titus invested the role of the Celebrant with an unselfconscious personality, an individuality, that it doesn’t quite have here. Then, too, those admirers of Mass for whom the voices of particular vocalists are indelibly linked to particular solo spots may find themselves initially taken aback. And it would be hard to deny that some of the European performers lack the sense of American pop-music style that their American counterparts had. At the same time, this performance is more polished than its predecessor, and it offers more clarity, more color, more variety of nuance, too (listen to the light touch in “Gloria Tibi”). I don’t want to suggest that it’s lacking in sheer crackle. The rhythms are fully charged (listen to the strut on the “Prefatory Prayers”), and the energy level is high, as is evident in the “Thrice Triple Canon,” and the crushing climax of the “Agnus Dei” (played with even more intensity than on the original recording). The “Meditations” have, if anything, even more concentration (and nobility) than they did in the first recording, too. Still, Nagano seems less desperate to make a case for the piece than Bernstein did, and it consequently emerges even more effectively.

And what of the work itself? Certainly, the sense of political outrage seems just as relevant today as it did during the Vietnam War—and that sense, as we’re listening, of the connection between then and now gives Mass an added gravity, a sense that what once may have sounded trendy is deeper than that. Our temporal distance from the piece gives us a new perspective on the pop-music elements, too. When Mass was new, many of us tended to listen as if Bernstein were trying to produce “real” rock, “real” gospel music; and the non-authenticity made us squirm. Thirty-odd years later, it’s easier to hear these numbers not as instances of popular genres, but as stylizations of them—”Easy” is no more a “real” blues than the middle movement of the Ravel Violin Sonata is. From this new perspective, Mass seems less gawky.

What remains unchanged is the sheer prodigality of the musical imagination at work—the ingenuity of its structure, the vigor of its rhythmic momentum, and the catchiness of its tunes. Listen to this recording once, and you’ll be singing it to yourself for days. Not all the spatial directions in the score have been honored (they weren’t in the original recording, either). And although there are a number of excellent touches on the surround sound version (the bells at the beginning of the “Sanctus”), I’m not sure that the engineers and producers have drawn all they could from the multichannel potential (I’d have preferred even more of a sense of being in the middle of a swirling chaos at the end of the “Agnus Dei”). But, details aside, the sound, especially on the SACD, is exceptional in its clarity, impressive in its sense of space (plenty of depth to the SACD image), and thrilling in its sheer visceral impact. A triumph.

Peter J. Rabinowitz, FANFARE

This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
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Works on This Recording

Mass by Leonard Bernstein
Performer:  Jerry Hadley (Tenor), Sigurd Brauns (Organ), Tobias Lehmann (Percussion)
Conductor:  Kent Nagano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Cathedral Chorus,  Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin,  Pacific Mozart Ensemble  ... 
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1971; USA 
Length: 105 Minutes 42 Secs. 

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