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Leonard Bernstein: Mass / Jerry Hadley, tenor; Kent Nagano

Album Summary

>Bernstein, Leonard : Alleluia
Performers Conductor Ensemble Composer

Notes & Reviews:

Woodstock, Nixon and the Vietnam War were undoubtedly underlying influences on the increasingly oppressive dramaturgy of this incredible 'Theatre Piece' composed in memory of J. F. Kennedy. 'What's a Jewish boy like you doing writing a Mass?', Bernstein was asked at the premiere in September 1971. Perhaps the answer lies with the 'Celebrant', the central figure in this work originally performed by 200 singers, instrumentalists and dancers, a piece at the crossroads between religions - and at the stylistic crossroads between classical, jazz, folk, blues, and rock - which today is still as relevant as ever.This title was released for the first time in 2004.

BBC Music Magazine, Christmas 2012
This controversial music-theatre piece is spruced up by the clean sound of this disc but lacks the compelling quality of the composer's own version.

Notes & Reviews:

Recording information: Philharmonie, Berlin (11/2003).

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-four years after the premiere, conductor Kent Nagano, a Bernstein protégé, has here given it only its second recording, using the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. While this version is clearly inferior to the one Bernstein himself conducted in 1971, it serves 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 in 2004 familiar with the policies of President George W. Bush. Sometimes, it seems the best way to be timeless is to be timely. As such, Nagano had the potential to create a Mass that spoke to his own generation as Bernstein attempted to speak to his. That opportunity is largely squandered, however. While the 1971 recording was full of impassioned performances reflecting the ripped-from-the-headlines quality of the writing, this one treats the work largely as a museum piece, rendering it as though it was some dusty opera, without much conviction. An added difficulty is the use of German singers in several parts, their accented English making comprehension a challenge and interpretation impossible. Musically, Nagano and the orchestra hew far closer to the classical elements in the score, giving only cursory treatment to the pop music parts, which unbalances the work. If a new recording 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. ~ William Ruhlmann


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Works Details

>Bernstein, Leonard : Alleluia
  • Performers: June Magruder (Voice); Raymond DeVoll (Voice); Dominic Cossa (Baritone); Karen Altman (Voice); John Manno (Harp); Marie-Louise Modersohn (Oboe); Sigurd Brauns (Organ); William Elliott (Voice); Betty Allen (Mezzo Soprano); Charles Magruder (Bass); Adreinne Albert (Voice); Maeretha Stewart (Soprano); Tobias Lehmann (Percussion); Tobias Lehmann (Sound Effects)
  • Conductor: Kent Nagano
  • Ensemble: Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
  • Running Time: 95 min. 36 sec.
  • Period Time: Modern
  • Written: 1971