25 April 2018

CD REVIEW: Leonard Bernstein — MASS (K. Vortmann; Westminster Symphonic Choir, Temple University Concert Choir, The American Boychoir; Temple University Diamond Marching Band; The Philadelphia Orchestra; Y. Nézet-Séguin; Deutsche Grammophon 483 5009)

IN REVIEW: Leonard Bernstein - MASS (Deutsche Grammophon 483 5009)LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918 – 1990): Mass – A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and DancersKevin Vortmann (Celebrant); Sarah Uriarte Berry, Julia Burrows, Morgan James (sopranos); Hilary Ginther, Bryonha Marie Parham, Lyn Philistine, Pearl Sun (mezzo-sopranos); E. Clayton Cornelious, Devin Illaw, Benjamin Krumreig, J.D. Webster (tenors); Timothy McDevitt, Kent Overshown, Nathaniel Stampley (baritones); Zachary James (bass); Douglas Butler, Daniel Voigt (boy sopranos); Westminster Symphonic Choir, Temple University Concert Choir, The American Boychoir; The Rock School for Dance Education; Temple University Diamond Marching Band; Student Musicians from the School District of Philadelphia; The Philadelphia Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in performance in Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, 30 April – 3 May 2015; Deutsche Grammophon 483 5009; 2 CDs, 107:45; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

In his Mémoires, passages in which make Mein Kampf seem like a paragon of humility by comparison, Hector Berlioz wrote that he ‘came into the world quite naturally, unheralded by any of the signs which, in poetic ages, preceded the advent of remarkable personages.’ Perhaps Jennie and Samuel Bernstein were similarly unaware of the artistic significance of the event when they welcomed their son Louis to the world on 25 August 1918. Like Berlioz’s 1803 début, though, the birth of the boy who would become Leonard Bernstein was an auspicious occasion in the history of music. In this year of celebration of the centennial of Bernstein’s birth, the prominent rôle played in the evolution of American music in the Twentieth Century by this son of Ukrainian immigrants is rightly being reassessed from new and perspectives, balancing appreciation of the sometimes flamboyant fervor of his conducting with fresh analyses of the contemplative brilliance of his work as a composer. From his still-potent Broadway scores to symphonic pieces that, like the music of fellow baton-wielding composers such as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Paul Kletzki, largely have not entered the international repertory, Bernstein bequeathed to contemporary Classical Music a body of work in which virtually every facet of his musical personality is reflected.

Not even Bernstein’s least-heralded works are unknown, but, aside from West Side Story, not even his best-known and best-crafted works—the fantastic Candide, for instance—are as widely heralded as they deserve to be. This is especially true of his Mass, a pièce d’occasion of quality that should have triumphantly outlived its occasion but has received greater appreciation in print than in performance. Recorded during performances in Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts with emotional immediacy that is all but impossible to achieve in recording studios [recording this atmospheric work under studio conditions would surely have yielded sonics of markedly improved balance and clarity, which might have increased the performance’s potency for repeated hearings], this Deutsche Grammophon Mass honors the score’s creator with an interpretation that shirks none of the piece’s difficulties and controversies. A product of the social and artistic contexts of a tumultuous period in America’s history, Mass was when new and can still sound radical when performed without complacency. Responses to every stimulus not found in Bernstein’s score ignored, this is a Mass that throbs with the true spirit of its composer.

Commissioned by Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and first performed on 8 September 1971, in conjunction with the inauguration of the Center for the Performing Arts built in Washington, DC, to honor her slain husband’s cultural legacy, Bernstein’s Mass is a work that is as complex and multi-layered as the composer himself. Like Kurt Weill’s and Bertolt Brecht’s Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, Bernstein’s Mass is an indictment of the inherent hypocrisy of the modern era. Manifested in Mahagonny in the substitution of a hedonistic cult of consumption for conventional morality, the duplicity is portrayed in Bernstein’s Mass as a spiritual crisis via which the national conscience is dissected and found to be fallible but resilient.

Bernstein devised Mass as a ‘theater piece’ rather than a straightforward musical treatment of the Ordinarium of the Mass, and the work’s theatricality is especially apparent in the performance preserved on these discs. Bernstein scored the piece for an exceptional ensemble of diverse musical forces, and a particular joy of this recording is hearing the young musicians of the Temple University Concert Choir and Diamond Marching Band and students from the School District of Philadelphia performing with abundant energy, musicality, and enthusiasm. The composer’s writing for voices and instruments not typically employed in formulaic Mass settings, an integral element of his concept, met with critical skepticism when the work was premièred, but the brilliance with which these parts are executed in this performance validates the sagacity of Bernstein’s vision.

The easy virtuosity brought to the music by The Philadelphia Orchestra, Westminster Symphonic Choir, and the young men of The American Boychoir, whose training academy is among the most lamentable victims of the new millennium’s financial calamities, reveals the extraordinary vitality of the composer’s ingenuity. The Philadelphia musicians, professional and amateur, manage the transitions among idioms—operatic in the manner of Candide and the flawed but engaging A Quiet Place [a new recording of which, featuring an excellent cast and Orchestre symphonique de Montréal under the direction of Kent Nagano, is scheduled for release by DECCA in June 2018], symphonic in the mode of his homages to Beethoven and Mahler, and Broadway-esque, reminiscent of West Side Story—with keen awareness of both the individual implications of each stylistic component and how each part fits into the whole. A performance of Mass cannot survive haphazard musicianship: this performance thrives on its participants’ consistent, consistently incisive musicality. Every woman, boy, and man involved with this recording audibly approaches the music with unique points of view, but a particular success of this performance is that it is emphatically Bernstein’s Mass and no one else’s.

With vocal lines inhabiting many of the stylistic worlds explored by Bernstein during his career, the solo singers in Mass face unenviable challenges of range, diction, and versatility. The effectiveness of a performance of this music cannot be assessed solely using the criteria of accurate pitches and rhythms, not least because an aura of improvisational spontaneity is crucial to the realization of Bernstein’s musical and expressive intentions. The singers assembled for this performance of Mass constitute an ensemble of great variety and vitality, and their work engenders a reading of the score in which the equilibrium between words and music, meticulously cultivated by Bernstein, is maintained with unfaltering scrutiny of the dramatic significance of each phrase.

The mostly well-matched singers—boy sopranos Douglas Butler and Daniel Voigt; sopranos Sarah Uriarte Berry, Julia Burrows, Morgan James, and Meredith Lustig; mezzo-sopranos Hilary Ginther, Bryonha Marie Parham, Lyn Philistine, and Pearl Sun; tenors E. Clayton Cornelius, Devin Ilaw, Benjamin Krumreig, and J. D. Webster; baritones Timothy McDevitt, Kent Overshown, and Nathaniel Stampley; and bass Zachary James—are wholly credible as participants in a spiritual probe driven by a musical explication of traditional liturgy. The integration of disparate idioms is accomplished with laudable fluency, lending the traversal of the score the continuity and fluidity that it needs to truly lure the listener into the soul of the music—and, through the music, into the soul of America. That this is difficult music is obvious, but the vocalism provided by these talented, dedicated artists enables the listener to joyfully and truthfully echo the words of Walt Whitman: in their performance, one hears America singing.

The performance of Seattle-based tenor Kevin Vortmann as Mass’s celebrant is nothing short of a tour de force. With only a few notes at the lower end of the compass disclosing weakness, the singer exhibits vocal qualifications diligently adapted to the music—music that requires a blend of a good opera singer’s security throughout the range, an accomplished Lieder singer’s communicative acuity, and the charisma of a leading man of the Great White Way. Vortmann brings to the Celebrant’s music a timbre reminiscent of that of John Aler and a vibrancy that recalls the best performances of Mandy Patinkin. His approach to the part is wholly his own, however, mimicking neither the inimitable creator of the rôle, Alan Titus, nor any subsequent Celebrant. Vortmann elucidates textual subtleties not by exaggerating his diction but by remaining sensitive to the ways in which Bernstein employed words to propel vocal lines.

The depth of Vortmann’s comprehension of the composer’s musical architecture is evident in every phrase of his performance, beginning with an account of ‘A Simple Song’ that is both exciting and moving and continuing with a forceful Epiphany. In the Fraction sequence launched by ‘Things Get Broken,’ Vortmann intones ‘Pacem! Pacem!’ with the angst of a soul torn by violence and injustice, and the Allegro furioso statement of ‘Why are you waiting?’ explodes with doubt and sudden rage. Vortmann makes ‘God...said...’ and ‘Oh, I suddenly feel ev’ry step I’ve ever taken’ wrenchingly personal, delving into the sinister dimensions of dogmatism with terrifying honesty. In an instant, the listener also feels every step of the Celebrant’s voyage, Vortmann’s delivery imparting the catharsis of self-awareness. The Celebrant’s metamorphosis from instrument of ritual to self-sufficient Everyman is wrought with unerring histrionic instincts: the liberation of a symbolic scion of modern society from the drudgery of self-delusion is palpable. An amalgamation of the Evangelists in Bach’s Passions, the Simpleton in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Britten’s Albert Herring, and Bernstein’s own Candide, the Celebrant receives from Vortmann a mesmerizingly complex, cogent characterization.

Having recently conducted performances of Wagner’s Parsifal and Richard Strauss’s Elektra at The Metropolitan Opera, that company’s Music Director designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin has vast experience with music sometimes cited as troublesome by fellow musicians and listeners. Performances and recordings have revealed him to be a masterful conductor of a broad repertoire including music by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Bruckner, Mahler, and the too-little-appreciated Florent Schmitt, manifesting a far-reaching but not pedantic intelligence. His handling of Bernstein’s music in this performance of Mass, ebulliently youthful and galvanized by the impatience with the musical establishment that erupts from every page of the score, illuminates a close artistic kinship between composer and conductor. Executing the instructions provided in the music is something of which any competent conductor should be capable, but Nézet-Séguin shapes this performance of Mass with the sort of comprehensive mastery that Britten disclosed in his conducting of Schumann’s unwieldy Szenen aus Goethes Faust. Under Nézet-Séguin’s baton, the idiosyncrasies of the music that perplexed and displeased critics in 1971 sound inherently right: rather than missteps to be corrected, they are innovations to be celebrated.

Mass’s peculiar but engrossingly episodic structure, not wholly unlike Act Two of Parsifal, becomes an impactful linear narrative in this performance, the momentum of the Celebrant’s storytelling energized by Nézet-Séguin’s urgent but unhurried pacing. The conductor’s comfort with music from many eras is particularly advantageous in Mass’s pair of Meditations, here impressive as finely-crafted pieces with their own merits rather than forgettable as affectionate but decorative pastiches. In a work like Mass, it can be argued that, to transplant Thomas Jefferson’s observation from the halls of civic power to the concert hall, the conductor is best who conducts least—or, more to the point, least imposes his conducting upon the music. In the context of these DGG discs, it could almost be believed that, this group of musicians having assembled in Verizon Hall, a performance of Mass extemporaneously occurred like the proverbial hockey game that arises from an impromptu brawl at the ice rink. Its copious virtues notwithstanding, this is not music that scores hat tricks without adept coaching. Conducting with an exemplary fusion of zeal and perceptiveness, Nézet-Séguin unobtrusively coaches this team to unequivocal victory.

Perfection in Art is an imperfect thing. One pair of eyes gazes upon Pablo Picasso’s Guernica with the belief that the carnage would be more real to the viewer if striking colors gushed from the tableau. Other eyes study a kaleidoscopic work by Marc Chagall and wonder whether its message would be more forcefully conveyed by hues of grey. It is now fashionable to dismiss some of Bernstein’s works as dated, and there are indeed passages in Mass that are very much of the time of their creation. As the music is performed on these discs, Mass can no more be dismissed as a relic of the past than Guernica can be described as merely a well-known image. Still rousing after more than four decades, Bernstein’s own recording introduced Mass to the public beyond Kennedy Center’s walls. Overcoming technical limitations that mitigate its efficacy, this recording introduces Mass to a new generation of listeners with a performance that recreates the magic of the composer’s account on its own terms.