Marin Alsop

Leonard Bernstein: Mass

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Renewed interest in Leonard Bernstein's Mass (1971) may be related to a resurgence of political unrest, religious questioning, and social tensions in the first decade of the twenty first century, or it may be due merely to baby-boomer nostalgia. The Vietnam war, the sexual revolution, the ecumenical movement, and other issues of the day, as commented on by Bernstein and co-lyricist Stephen Schwartz, definitively marked Mass as a period piece, along with its setting of the pre-Vatican II Latin text of the Roman Catholic liturgy. Musically, too, this elaborate theater piece is dated, with its fairly naïve mix of cheeky pop songs, angry urban blues, raucous circus band marches, and pious folk songs with discordant quadraphonic tapes, rigorous canons, austere chorales, and twelve-tone meditations: it overflows with the eclecticism that was the era's answer to the fading avant-garde. Even at the time, some critics wondered if such a topical work could be relevant for future performances. By the end of the 1970s, Mass could already be seen as a relic of the past, and it's small wonder that it stayed in the catalog only in Bernstein's authoritative recording for Columbia, mostly by dint of the composer's compelling personality and importance to the label. More than 30 years would pass before recordings by Kent Nagano for Harmonia Mundi, Kristjan Järvi for Chandos, and Marin Alsop for Naxos would appear, starting a revival for this vast time capsule of a work, and raising once more the matter of the piece's significance. Alsop's recording with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, featuring baritone Jubilant Sykes as the Celebrant, is quite close to Bernstein's original; indeed, listeners may be excused if they think they find some similarities, for the quad tapes employed in 1971 are reused here, and Alsop makes sure that the sound and expression of her live musicians match as well. In this respect, the performance comes closer than Nagano's or Järvi's, and Alsop's admiration for Bernstein clearly has led her to direct the performance with the 1971 recording as a guideline, albeit with a few altered lyrics and some slight changes of tempo. But listeners are still left to face the larger question of the work's continued value, and Alsop's devotion to the first recording does little to make this seem like a fresh or updated version for today, or to dispel the feeling that this is just a trip down memory lane. Sykes passionate interpretation of the central role provides the most important reason to hear this 2008 recording, and his flexible delivery is an interesting alternative to the more straightforward singing of the original Celebrant, Alan Titus. But so much is the same here, Sykes cannot make a large enough difference by himself, and this Mass does not really escape its Zeitgeist. Listeners would do well to stick with Bernstein's recording if they want to experience its excitement, but should give Alsop's a try for the earnest effort and the spacious digital sound.

Track Listing - Disc 1

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
Mass, theatre piece for singers, players & dancers
1 01:58 Amazon
2 04:10 Amazon
3 01:08 Amazon
4 04:59 Amazon
5 00:41 Amazon
6 01:57 Amazon
7 01:21 Amazon
8 00:54 Amazon
9 02:10 Amazon
10 01:41 Amazon
11 04:50 Amazon
12 05:09 Amazon
13 01:54 Amazon
14 01:15 Amazon
15 00:59 Amazon
16 02:46 Amazon
17 03:38 Amazon
18 05:50 Amazon
19 04:22 Amazon
20 01:08 Amazon
21 02:16 Amazon
22 01:20 Amazon
23 01:38 Amazon
24 02:06 Amazon
25 02:31 Amazon
26 02:12 Amazon
blue highlight denotes track pick