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Bernstein: Mass / Jarvi, Scarlata, et al

Album Summary

>Bernstein, Leonard : Alleluia
Performers Conductor Ensemble Composer

Notes & Reviews:

One of Bernstein's most controversial compositions, 'Mass' was written at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC and received its gala premiere at the venue’s opening on 8 September 1971. Bernstein declared that his intention in writing the piece had been ‘to communicate as directly and universally as I can a reaffirmation of faith’. Recalling Britten’s War Requiem in its use of Catholic liturgical text interrupted with commentary in the vernacular, the work caused a storm of controversy, particularly with its exploration of the concerns of the era, Nixon and Vietnam.

Kristjan Jarvi conducted Australian orchestras in 2008 on a triumphant national tour, for which he was nominated for a limelight award. 'The conductor Kristjan Jarvi is bringing a bracing blast of Bernstein.' - The Times. Bernstein's Mass is one of the most tuneful and accessible sacred works of the 20th century, a charming precursor to Jesus Christ Superstar influenced by late sixties rock. Ideal for fans of both classical music and Broadway.

Notes & Reviews:

Leonard Bernstein's Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers was given a mixed reception upon its premiere as the inaugural production at the opera house of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., on September 8, 1971. A double-LP box set recording followed in the fall, and there were performances in several cities the next year, but the work, which mixed popular music genres with classical ones, never attracted a wide following. Thirty-three years after the premiere, conductor Kent Nagano gave it only its second recording, using the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, and four years after that, conductor Kristjan Järvi has given it its third, using the Tonkünstler-Orchester, the State Orchestra of Lower Austria. (Actually, less time passed between the two, since the Nagano recording was made in November 2003 and the Järvi in February 2006, though it was held for release for three years.) While these versions are clearly inferior to the one Bernstein himself conducted in 1971, they serve to alert 21st century listeners that the composition is not just a time capsule of its era. That's the way some saw it in the early '70s, when it seemed of a piece with several other musical theater works that attempted to use the Christian religion to comment on the social turmoil of the period, notably Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, the latter written by Stephen Schwartz, who also co-wrote the lyrics to Mass. In each work, the tradition-encrusted tale of Christ's life was contemporized in song with an emphasis on skepticism and even cynicism, sung in vernacular language and expressed musically in styles of rock and pop. Bernstein's version, based on the liturgy of the Roman Catholic mass, was the most musically ambitious and eloquent, tracing the ways in which Christian belief could be perverted and questioned. Creating a government-commissioned work, he may have been trying to "catch the conscience of the king," in his case, President Richard Nixon, who failed to attend the premiere. But his and Schwartz's attack on those who use Christianity for their own ends, as expressed in "God Said," with its specious justifications for anti-environmentalism and warmongering, must sound only too familiar to listeners familiar with the policies of President George W. Bush, who left office a month before the Järvi album was released. Sometimes, it seems the best way to be timeless is to be timely. As such, Järvi, like Nagano, had the potential to create a version of the Mass that spoke to his own generation as Bernstein attempted to speak to his. In both casts, that opportunity is squandered, however, and oddly enough in the same ways. While the 1971 recording was full of impassioned performances reflecting the ripped-from-the-headlines quality of the writing, Järvi, just as Nagano did, treats the work largely as a museum piece, rendering it as though it was some dusty opera, without much conviction. An added difficulty (again, amazingly, in both versions) is the use of native German-speaking singers in several parts, their accented English making comprehension a challenge and interpretation impossible. Musically, Järvi, like Nagano, hews far closer to the classical elements in the score, giving only cursory treatment to the pop music parts, which unbalances the work. If new recordings of Bernstein's Mass can reawaken debate about a composition that deserves to be remembered, what it really should do is send the curious back to the initial version. Perhaps a theatrical production handled by people less tied to the classical realm could bring the work back in a more meaningful way. ~ William Ruhlmann


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Works Details

>Bernstein, Leonard : Alleluia
  • Performers: Barbara Achammer (Double Bass); Damien Bassman (Drums); Andreas Bauer (Bass); Theresa Dlouhy (Alto); Georg Drexel (Double Bass); Mat Fieldes (Double Bass); Bernd Frölich; Bernd Frölich (Voice); Suzanne Gassner (Voice); Vesselin Gellev (Violin); Alexander Gheorghiu (Violin); Heidemaria Gruber (Double Bass); Günter Haumer; Gernot Heinrich (Tenor); Bernd Hemedinger (Voice); Matt Herskowitz (Keyboards); Kristjan Järvi (Voice); Vahid Khadem-Missagh (Violin); Sonja Korak (Flute); Reinwald Kranner (Descant); Ruth Kraus (Double Bass); Orfeo Mandozzi (Cello); Claudia Meller (Voice); Dave Moskin (Voice); Jennifer O'Loughlin (Soprano); Barbara Ritter (Oboe); Randall Scarlata (Baritone); Randall Scarlata (Piano); Michael Seltzer (Trombone); Philip Traugott (Voice); Reinhardt Wagner (Horn); Christoph Wigelbeyer (Voice); Lenneke Willemsen (Voice)
  • Conductor: Kristjan Järvi
  • Ensemble: Absolute Ensemble
  • Running Time: 96 min. 5 sec.
  • Period Time: Modern
  • Written: 1971