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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Mass, A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers (1971)
Olle Persson (celebrant)
Katarina Choir
Members of the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Lars-Ewe Nilsson
Recorded ‘live’ in the Katarina Kyrka, Sweden, 22-25 October 1998
NOSAG CD x04 [64’08+55’08]

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Bernstein’s outrageously eclectic, hugely enjoyable theatre piece Mass, commissioned to inaugurate the new John F. Kennedy Centre in Washington in 1971, has been enjoying something of a revival recently. There was an excellent new full price recording from German forces under Kent Nagano last year (Harmonia Mundi) and there is talk of a live stage revival under the capable baton of Marin Alsop later this year at the Barbican. Of course, Bernstein’s own energetic and uniquely authoritative set on Sony has been re-issued at mid-price, and will undoubtedly provide the severest competition for this all-Swedish recording. In fact, to be quite honest, I’m not sure there is any real contest.

There are two big and immediate drawbacks here. The first is the terrible packaging, which has only the barest information, amounting to a list of the performers (in Swedish) and a track listing on the back, in English thank goodness. There is nothing whatever about the music, not even a synopsis, and no libretto. Bernstein’s Sony set has a minimised reprint of the excellent original, which includes the full text and important stage directions. In such a multi-layered work as this, it is crucial to have an idea what is going on, regardless of the language. I had access to the original LP booklet (and superb photos by Don Hunstein of the premiere) as well as the vocal score. Without them, my enjoyment would be severely marred, and it is unforgivable of record companies not to consider the listener in this way. Bernstein and his collaborator Stephen Schwartz spent months on the text, and Humphrey Burton tells us, in his Bernstein biography, about the composer spending many more hours checking the proofs for the very booklet I have been using. So to not have access to that text is a big black mark here.

The other, less important but nevertheless irritating, consideration is the English pronunciation of some of the Swedish performers. Luckily, Olle Persson’s celebrant is generally good, only distorting vowels occasionally, and getting a little tongue-tied in some of the cleverer word play, such as ‘There are local vocal yokels who we know collect a crowd; they can fashion a rebuttal that’s as subtle as a sword’. Some of his colleagues fair a little worse, and when you return to the snappiness of the original hand-picked American cast, you realise how difficult it must have been for some of these foreign singers to master the more difficult passages.

With those two caveats out of the way, there is much to enjoy musically. We certainly know of the skill of Swedish musicians, and the playing and singing of the well-drilled cast is very good. Mass is such an infectious, tuneful piece that there really is something for everyone here. Bernstein put his heart and soul into this, his artistic credo. You will be aware constantly of references to other music, be it Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Les Noces, Orff’s Carmina Burana or Bernstein’s own On the Waterfront, Chichester Psalms or, especially, West Side Story – I though at least twice (‘God Said’, track 21 and ‘Confiteor’, track 16) that we were hearing slightly altered versions of ‘Officer Krupke’ and ‘Cool’. There is also the feeling that some of this work is a child of its time (1971) with echoes of post-Hippie musicals such as Hair and Schwartz’s own Godspell looming large. But Bernstein is Bernstein, and it’s impossible not to be swept up by the vivacity, inventiveness, great tunes and sheer audacity of the enterprise. Who else could mix avant-garde electronics, blues, rock, Viennese classicism (including an instrumental interlude on a theme by Beethoven), gospel choir, a kazoo chorus, serialism and mediaeval tropes, and get away with it? Not many, and though a lot of critics hated this piece, mainly for its showiness and heart-on-sleeve emotionalism, there’s no doubt that this is Bernstein putting his artistic and creative cards on the table, and with the sort of flair only his talent and personality were capable of.

If anything, that’s what comes across in this Swedish production, a sense of fun and enthusiasm for the project. The cast and players really sound like they are loving every minute of this, and who can blame them? There are some great voices on display here; I’ve mentioned the excellent Olle Persson already, as he carries much of the solo responsibility - I wonder if he’d acquainted himself with the composer’s choice, Alan Titus, as there are similarities in delivery - and mention must be made of the superbly blowzy blues singing in the second trope ‘I don’t know’. In fact, this does sound authentically American, and I wondered whether this was the one non-Swedish name in the cast list, Sharon Dyall. The instrumental playing is good, but does not ‘rock’ quite like Bernstein’s own, though not many will, I guess. A couple of other observations: the quadraphonic tape used at the start is from the original, but Lenny’s own taped voice at the very end (‘The Mass is ended, go in peace’) is replaced by the Celebrant. Also, the final track, entitled ‘Thank You’, is simply five plus minutes of applause and cheering, hardly necessary on CD.

The simple question is, how can this be recommended over the Bernstein original, re-mastered and costing less than £12.00? The answer is, it can’t. The digital sound is no better, the packaging hopeless, and is ultimately best left for those who took part as a memento of the event. I do urge you to acquaint yourself with this magnificently bizarre, infectious, glorious mish-mash of a piece, but get the real article with the man himself at the helm.

Tony Haywood

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