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This reissue in harmonia mundi's hmGold series features Kent Nagano conducting a major work of the 20th century. Woodstock, Nixon and the Vietnam War were undoubtedly key influences on the intense dramaturgy of Mass, Leonard Bernstein's 'Theatre Piece' composed in memory of John F. Kennedy. The celebrant, sung here by Jerry Hadley, is the central figure in the work, which features over 200 singers, instrumentalists and dancers. Mass exists at the crossroads between religions - and at the stylistic crossroads between classical, jazz, folk, blues, and rock - remains as relevant today as ever.
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The role of the Celebrant is taken by Jerry Hadley, a versatile tenor greatly admired by Bernstein, who chose him for some of his DG recordings. After the opening Antiphon, he sings the famous solo ("A Simple Song") at a considerably faster tempo than in Bernstein's recording (was this Nagano's idea?) and it does not establish the deep calm that was achieved in 1971; the change of key by the orchestra to C major, magical on the CBS recording, just sounds routine here. Despite minor disappointment over this, it's still fine singing, and in general Hadley's contribution to this recording later on is the best reason for hearing it.
Unfortunately, many of the other singers offer undercharacterised singing which constantly leaves me crying out for the soloists of 1971: this becomes apparent in the "Confession" section, which consists of a Latin 'Confiteor' setting with two English-text 'tropes' entitled "I don't know" (with three rock singers) and "Easy" (with three blues singers). In the aggressive 'Confiteor', the chorus in 1971 produces a greater dynamic range than its counterpart in 2003, which sounds relatively uncommitted; the 1971 chorus also delivers the finger-snapping "mea culpa" passage with appropriate irony, whereas one wonders whether the 2003 singers even knew what the Latin words meant. The "I don't know" trope gets off to a weak start with nothing like the impact of the electric bass guitar and percussion in 1971 and the first rock singer doesn't convey the anguished and sincere soul-searching that his words imply (the second rock singer is worse, but the third rock singer delivers his contribution with far more impact). The first two rock singers are however preferable to the first blues singer, who is no match for the 1971 soloist. By the time of the 2003 recording some of the words - both here and elsewhere - had been altered (these revisions are also in the Järvi & Alsop recordings) and I regret the replacement of the following profoundly cynical lyrics about 'repentance' from the first blues singer's original second stanza which now are only to be heard on the CBS recording: "it's easy to stay as cool as autumn rain / you start by sweeping standards down the well known drain / then swap your zeal / for nerves of steel / it's so easy and you feel no pain". The second and third blues singers disappoint compared with their counterparts in 1971 who were no doubt coaxed and encouraged by Bernstein to give their utmost. The climax of the "Confession" section sounds tame next to what was achieved in 1971, and its message - an articulation of the doubts encountered by people sincerely searching for belief and the self-deception of other complacent 'worshippers' who have not examined their own religious convictions properly - is not conveyed with anything like the force of the 1971 version.
The Gloria is more successful, with some incisive contribution from the chorus. In the Epistle ("The Word of the Lord"), the spoken passages draw parallels between the persecution of the apostles and those imprisoned in the modern era for their beliefs. It's affecting in the 1971 recording but here the speakers don't deliver the text so expressively. Here it's Jerry Hadley who is holding the performance together - perhaps not quite a match for Alan Titus (the Celebrant in 1971), but still offering in his lyrical approach a reassurance that persecution cannot succeed: "O you people of power, your hour is now. You may plan to rule forever but you never do somehow". In the Gospel-Sermon ("God said"), the catalogue of how humanity has misinterpreted God's commandments came over more strongly in 1971 - again, Nagano's soloists are not delivering the text with enough punch - but the movement is rescued by the singer taking the role of the preacher, who conveys a real sense of anger at the end ("God made us the boss. / God gave us the cross. / We turned it into a sword / To spread The Word of the Lord / We use His holy decrees / To do whatever we please"). He saves the performance of the "Gospel-Sermon" just as Hadley saved the "Epistle".
The Credo has three tropes by singers (a baritone, a mezzo-soprano, and a rock singer) struggling to come to terms with religion. Again, memories of what was achieved in 1971 are not easily forgotten. The rock singer in the third trope ("I believe in God, but does God believe in me?") is the most successful and conveys his anxiety well, probably because he is forced almost to yell to be heard above the orchestra - but his counterpart in 1971 was more extreme still. Nagano's performance really begins to take off with the Sanctus, with Hadley's shouting of "Let us pray" even more effective than Alan Titus in 1971, and an astonishing acceleration in tempo during the Agnus Dei as we approach the Dona Nobis Pacem, with its reference to the atomic bomb ("You worked six days and rested on Sunday / We can tear the whole mess down in one day"); this section is taken much faster than in any of the other three recordings, and it's an interesting interpretative idea by Nagano, though Bernstein's slower tempo creates an even greater sense of a rebellion by a belligerent, disillusioned mob.
At this point, the Celebrant desecrates the alter and a huge dramatic challenge falls to whoever sings this role, as the Celebrant now has a 14-minute monologue during which he has to make a convincing transition (with no assistance from any other singers) from the deafening climax of the Dona Nobis Pacem to the peaceful Communion, beautifully sung here by the chorus. Hadley is superb here, as the Celebrant contemplates his loss of faith and looks for a way forward spiritually. He offers a different interpretation from that of Alan Titus, and for me Hadley is even more compelling.
Of the four commercial recordings of Bernstein's Mass, I would rate Nagano's as by quite a margin the least successful, but it is certainly worth hearing for Hadley's contribution. This was one of Jerry Hadley's last recordings, as he sang very little during the final five years before his suicide in July 2007. There are too many singers in this production sounding uncomfortable with their roles to permit a general recommendation of this version, but in view of Bernstein's high opinion of Hadley (he even chose him for the title role in his DG recording of 'Candide'), and in view of the Celebrant's central role in the work, this performance still warrants attention.