When Leonard Bernstein’s MASS was first performed in 1971, even many of the composer’s most devoted admirers weren’t sure what to make of it. (The Nixon administration was pretty sure, detecting strong antiwar and antiestablishment messages; the President skipped the premiere.) The sprawling two-hour work—“A Theater Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers”—is undeniably all over the place stylistically. One hears elements of mid-20th century classical modernism and high-concept Broadway musical theater, Mahleresque orchestral movements, and numbers for rock and blues singers that were cringe-worthy in 1971 and, at best, seem quaint 47 years later. There are generous dollops of era-specific agitprop (“Half the people are stoned and the other half are waiting for the next election”) and expressions of a personal crisis of faith. Following the 1971 Columbia recording led by Bernstein, there were no other commercial recordings of MASS for over three decades. Since 2004, however, there have been four, versions conducted by Kent Nagano (Harmonia Mundi), Kristjian Järvi (Chandos), Marin Alsop (Naxos), and now this two-disc DG set from Yannick Nézet-Séquin and the better-than-ever Philadelphia Orchestra with a cast of superbly prepared soloists and assisting ensembles.
The work sets the Latin texts of the Roman Catholic Mass with additional lyrics by Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz.There are a few lines by Paul Simon as well. The large role of the Celebrant is crucial, providing an element of continuity, and it’s magnificently executed by Kevin Vortmann, a tenor with a resume that’s mostly Broadway, though his vocal instrument has operatic heft when required. His two big numbers, the gently lyrical “I Go On” and the agonized 15-minute “Things Get Broken” sequence, could not be better. The other participants for this recording, derived from a series of live performances at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall in the spring of 2015, include the 18 soloists comprising MASS’s “Street Chorus,” the Westminster Symphonic Choir, the Temple University Concert Choir and Temple’s Marching Band, the American Boychoir, and young musicians from the Philadelphia public schools—all fully responsive to Nézet-Séguin’s coherent vision of the score. With the benefit of hindsight, the brilliance of Bernstein’s conception crystalizes—the use of widely disparate compositional materials is necessary to demonstrate the world’s potential for reconciliation: “All this music can live together,” the conductor observes for the liner notes.
If the recording lacks the sense of occasion of the Ondine Philadelphia Orchestra SACDs recorded at Verizon in the mid-2000s, it lays out the complexities of Bernstein’s score with clarity. A high-resolution version might ameliorate some of the stridency of the most cacophonous moments. At several points, a prerecorded quadraphonic tape is specified; a multichannel recording would have served that effect nicely. But musical and dramatic values ultimately carry the day, and when a voice on tape ends the work benignly—“The Mass is ended; go in peace”—there’s a sense of catharsis. MASS may not be Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece, but it’s surely a summation of all he was as a composer, as well as a reflection of his encompassing humanity.