Kevin Vortmann (tenor); Westminster Symphonic Choir; The American Boychoir; Temple University Concert Choir & Diamond Marching Band; Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Deutsche Grammophon 483 5009 107:45 mins (2 discs)
Conductor Marin Alsop’s London performances this year proved that Bernstein’s wildly eclectic ‘theatre piece’ Mass, a true groovy child of 1971, can be still an overwhelming experience if it’s staged with panache. However, successfully bottling only its music onto a CD is a tricky job. The present Deutsche Grammophon release springs from live Philadelphia performances conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin in 2015, with singers frequently on the move, clearly not always close to a mic.
The result is a recording where any buzz generated on the night fights a losing battle with jumbled sound levels and shortages in ensemble élan – faults that don’t add any cohesion to a work always in danger of collapse from its bitty structure, multiple textures, and riotous stylistic abandon. They’re all in here somewhere: classical, pop, rock and blues; catchy melodies, cringing lyrics; sudden violence, flower power and peace; electric guitars and 20 kazoos.
Performances themselves carry flaws of their own. Despite his affection for the score, Nézet-Séguin brings nothing special to the job of conductor; it’s as if all his energies went into keeping the show just about on the road. Tenor Kevin Vortmann as the Mass’s Celebrant offers some beautiful singing, but it’s singing of little character or conviction, seriously damaging the dramatic effect of his climactic breakdown sequence, when he hurls consecrated blood and wine onto the floor. The boys’ choir is inadequate. It’s a big pity. Mass is always going to be imperfect, dated too; but it’s still a stronger, more foot-tapping piece than this disappointing recording suggests.