Bernstein: Mass

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Bernstein
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Mass
PERFORMER: Jubilant Sykes (celebrant), Ashe Edward Wulfman (boy soprano); Morgan State University Choir; Peabody Children’s Chorus; Baltimore SO/Marin Alsop
CATALOGUE NO: 8.559622-23

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Unlike the disappointing recording of Mass released earlier this year by Chandos, this Naxos issue is a virtual triumph from beginning to end, and the only recording for me worthy of sitting next to the composer’s own.

In terms of overall technical achievement, it trumps all: the Morgan State University Choir and the Peabody Children’s Chorus negotiate Bernstein’s tri-lingual tongue twisters with absolute mastery of pitch, diction, and style, while the Baltimore Symphony plays most eloquently, particularly in the many lyrical woodwind passages. Engineering is superb, as is Robert Hilferty’s booklet essay (however, the soloists of the Street Chorus deserve to have their assignments listed).

Jubilant Sykes’s Celebrant offers a valid alternative to Alan Titus’s conception, which is still in a class of its own. While Titus simmers towards spiritual meltdown almost from the beginning, Sykes’s wide-eyed innocent maintains his belief in the validity of the ritual until the final destruction of the sacraments; in the mad scene that follows, he seems more upset with his own spiritual failings than those of the congregation.

Perhaps Bernstein’s fractionally slower tempos in big ensembles such as ‘God Said’ and the Agnus Dei allow his singers more time to relish the words’ cynicism and venom, but Alsop’s tight-knit, symphonic pacing delineates the structure of the work without diluting its exuberant eclecticism or softening its hard road towards spiritual reawakening: the final Communion is among the most moving passages ever recorded.

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She is no slouch, too, when it comes to that elusive Bernstein groove; if you aren’t dancing around the room during the Gloria in Excelsis, you haven’t got a soul to save, my friend! Howard Goldstein