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BERNSTEIN, L.: Mass (Sykes, Wulfman, Morgan State University Choir, Peabody Children's Chorus, Baltimore Symphony, Alsop)

Naxos 8.559622-23

   Sinfini Music, August 2014
   MusicWeb International, March 2011
   Gramophone, October 2010
   Gramophone, September 2010
   My Big Gay Ears, February 2010
   American Record Guide, January 2010
   MusicWeb International, December 2009
   The Absolute Sound, December 2009
   Gramophone, December 2009
   The Weekend Australian Magazine, December 2009
   Gramophone, December 2009
   The Audio Critic, November 2009
   Winnipeg Free Press, November 2009
   Parterre Box, November 2009
   Choir & Organ, November 2009
   Enjoy the Music, November 2009
   Gapplegate Music Review, October 2009
   Playbill, October 2009
   MusicWeb International, October 2009
   Classic FM, October 2009
   Opera News, October 2009
   Toronto Star, September 2009
   BBC Music Magazine, September 2009
   Gramophone, September 2009
   The Washington Post, August 2009, August 2009
   The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 2009, August 2009
   The Baltimore Sun, August 2009
   David's Review Corner, August 2009
   International Record Review, July 2009

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Sinfini Music, August 2014

Alsop has recorded lots for Naxos including a decent cycle of the Brahms symphonies; this landmark recording of Bernstein’s Mass puts up the best argument yet for a troubled but consistently entertaining work. © 2014 Sinfini Music

Brian Reinhart
MusicWeb International, March 2011

I must begin this review with two important disclaimers. The first is that Leonard Bernstein’s Mass is not for everybody. Some, or perhaps many, of the readers of this website will strongly dislike the music. It is an unfamiliar and unpredictable blend of styles to which past critics have assigned labels like “crass”, “patronizing” and “a cacophonous, irreverent musical mess”. A critic whose opinion I greatly respect calls it “confused” and “ill-digested regressive emotional petulance”. This is a work which bends or demolishes nearly every rule in the Mass-writing lawbook. And it is an incredibly long, in fact too long piece—nearly two hours of an emotionally trying journey through atonality, gospel hymns, jazz, often-cynical Broadway tunes and moody instrumental interludes. When I first approached the Mass I did so with fear and low expectations. This performance dispelled these worries for me, but it may not do so for you.

My second disclaimer is that some readers may find the one-sidedness of this review disturbing. In the world of music criticism, a common and easy-to-write construction is, “This performance is truly fantastic and I love everything about it, but here is a tiny, meaningless quibble so you will know I was an objective critic.”Although I will try to discuss the merits of the Mass itself fairly, there are no quibbles about this performance; you will have to take it on my honor that I have been objective, and unfortunately you will have to bear with my superlatives.

I would like to get all of those superlatives on paper right here in the opening, and specifically in the next paragraph, so that after this introduction we can focus without distraction on a closer analysis of the music at hand.

This album absolutely bowled me over. My colleague Simon Thompson named it a Recording of the Month, and I joined another colleague, Leslie Wright, in selecting it as a 2009 Recording of the Year. Marin Alsop’s performance of the Bernstein Mass with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and a glittering cast of vocalists is the kind of album that wins every award there is and changes forever the way we perceive the music being played. Indeed, by rights it should permanently alter the way we view Leonard Bernstein the composer, and should force the music world to re-evaluate his stunning Mass. Artistically and sonically perfect, with the added jolt of emotionally invested performers and genuine historical and musicological importance, this album is one of the great recording triumphs of our era.

Now that the reader knows where I stand, let us proceed to a discussion of the music. The Bernstein Mass is, above all, a work of theatre. Its subtitle, “A Theatre Piece”, demands to be taken seriously; this is a musical first and a mass second. In constructing the work during the early 1970s, Bernstein created a storyline around which to set the words of the traditional Catholic mass; the story tells of a man, named the Celebrant, with a simple and unquestioning faith in God who is forced to confront all the doubts of his congregation. The Mass was premiered at a trying time in American history, in the midst of the Vietnam War and still under the shadow of the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King; as a consequence, counter-culture figures, represented by a rock band and rock singers, present their doubts, complaints and tirades throughout the Mass. Eventually the Celebrant himself begins to question his faith and endures a spiritual crisis, amid the terrifying chaos of a jaw-droppingly powerful “Agnus Dei”, but his hope is rekindled at the end, when a boy soprano sings a “simple song” of faith and renewal.

If this synopsis seems hokey to the reader, perhaps the Mass is for someone else. The musical styles are even more iconoclastic than the unconventional plot: around the Latin lines of the Catholic text Bernstein sets songs of war and rebellion, mocking suggestions about God’s divine plan and even a two-line verse by Paul Simon (“Half the people are stoned and the other half are waiting for the next election / Half the people are drowned and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction”). Between the traditional texts, which are often set to original jazz or pop tunes, Bernstein inserts additional songs, like the somewhat tiresome “Easy” or the dazzling (and very, very funny) “God Said”, which sounds like it fell out of a draft for West Side Story.

A synopsis of the first ten minutes will suffice to demonstrate this work’s at-times-bewildering musical eclecticism. The Mass begins with an atonal swarm of pre-recorded noise, played on tape recorder in the concert hall, and then moves on to “A Simple Song”, a Broadway-gospel masterpiece in miniature in which the Celebrant declares his faith. Then the jazz chorus interrupts with a Swingle-Singers-style number, and the multi-genre tone is set. The Latin texts are all here, but the flux of musical idioms never lets us anticipate what might be coming next.

What most music critics fail to understand is that there are unifying factors in this tumult. Though it sometimes feels as if Bernstein threw every idea he could at the Mass just to see what would stick, the structure is quite sophisticated. The CDs’ excellent liner-notes, by Robert Hilferty, explain some of the running themes, including a vitally important repeated quotation of Beethoven’s Ninth—which is not as easy to hear as you might think. In the climactic final scene, much of what we have heard before returns to haunt the Celebrant, and the piece ends with a reminiscence of the opening “Simple Song”.

I would make the additional argument that the so-called jumble of musical styles is, in part, a musicological myth. The assumption all along has been that this is a strictly classical work which borrows willy-nilly from popular traditions; Dan Morgan, in citing the Chandos recording of the Mass as a 2009 Recording of the Year, stresses the presumed classical foundation of the work by using (justly) the phrase “operatic intensity”. But I think we have been looking at the work upside-down; it does have operatic intensity, but it is a piece which lives—somewhat uncomfortably—in its own world, in its own style. The foundation is Broadway and Bernstein’s stage work; add to that his interests in jazz and rock, and then, finally, place everything within a classical framework, showcasing the orchestra in the meditations, allowing the inspiration from Beethoven to be made clear, and creating cyclical motifs. Bernstein had always brought his classical genius to bear on popular theatre works like West Side Story; perhaps we can look at the Mass with greater understanding if we approach it in a similar way.

If I have a major qualm about the composition itself, aside from the length, it is that the lyrics sometimes can be embarrassingly poor. Bernstein and collaborator Stephen Schwartz had immense trouble writing this text, and, even with the help of people like Paul Simon, their labors show. “God Said” is one of several songs that’s brilliantly written (“I Believe in God” also stands out), but others are not so lucky. In “Easy”, one singer is given the unpleasant task of delivering the syrupy verse, “If you ask me to sing you verse that’s versatile / I’ll be glad to beguile you for a while / But don’t look for content beneath the style / Sit back and smile.” And, in the same song, the rather excellent observation that “Living is easy when you’re half alive” is rhymed with an idiotic admonishment to “dig my jim-jam-jive”.

Maybe Bernstein was just being ironic when he asked us not to “look for content beneath the style”, though, for the fact is that there is content beneath the distinctive style if this piece. With this performance we at last have grounds for assessing that content. Marin Alsop and her forces make the argument, far better than I can, that this is a work of popular musical theatre with classical leanings—not an operatic work with popular influences. Contrast the present recording with the nearly-simultaneous Chandos release featuring Austrian choruses and musicians under conductor Kristjan Järvi: the Celebrant on the Chandos recording, Randall Scarlata, sings well, but he sings operatically, and his “Simple Song” is a slow, stately aria. The Naxos Celebrant, Jubilant Sykes, by contrast, is a perfect mirror of the Mass itself: he was trained classically but never lost sight of roots in gospel and jazz music, and his performance here is a definitive combination of the genres at hand.

Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that Jubilant Sykes was born to sing the role of the Celebrant, and that the Celebrant was born to be sung by Sykes. His fresh-faced innocence at the opening, his bright and clear singing voice, and his impeccable acting all outpace the too-operatic stars who have tackled the role over the decades. Sykes sounds like the lead in an edgy musical, not a classical tenor. And, in a personal touch, Sykes even mentions the names of his wife and children (CC, Madison, Morgan and Micah) as being among the congregation at the end of “Meditation No. 3”.

The rest of the vocal cast is incredible, too. For the parts of the “street singers”, one wonders if Naxos raided the best shows on Broadway and brought us what they found. The booklet notes tell me that a professional casting director was employed for the sessions. But these voices do not just have beauty and power on their side: they have character, so much that even a twenty-second interjection is enough time for some of these singers to make an unforgettable mark—as with the man who sings the verse “God said it’s good to be poor” in the ninth movement, “Gospel-Sermon” or the young man who wishes he could say “Credo”.

The Morgan State University Chorus and Peabody Children’s Chorus also bring their absolute best to this performance. The voices of the Morgan State singers for “In Nomine Patris” sound like smiles, and have echoed in my head for days. The Järvi/Chandos recording also has some excellent vocal work, but a few of the street singers on that album sing in parodies of Broadway style, and some are altogether too operatic to be “street people”. On the Naxos disc, the singers are more appropriate to the vision of this work not as a confused mess of a classical piece but a popular work whose purpose has been misconstrued and misappropriated.

Conductor Marin Alsop has the task of bringing this enormous mass of forces together, along with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a rock band, and pre-recorded clips presented on tape. My MusicWeb International colleague Simon Thompson is one of several critics to have judged this Alsop’s greatest recording to date; it is clear on this evidence that Alsop deeply understands her old mentor, Bernstein, and the classical, jazz and popular idioms in which he worked.

And yet to speak in terms like these is to leave something unsaid about the present recording. Yes, this is the best available performance of the Bernstein Mass. Yes, if there is justice in the musical world, it will inspire a major reassessment of the merits of this big, crazy, multi-dimensional work, and perhaps redirect our thinking about the true purpose, and true language, of the piece. Yes, Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony, the Morgan State and Peabody singers, and Jubilant Sykes all play and sing their hearts out. Yes, the engineering of this whole spectacle is jaw-droppingly clear and the balances do justice to every contribution, and yes, the liner-notes, complete with eight still photographs of a live performance of the Mass, far outclass the typical Naxos booklet. But even so there is something a description like this is missing.

Rarely, very rarely, do I get a feeling when listening to a performance—a totally unquantifiable feeling—of something truly extraordinary happening. It is much more common in live performance: one’s sense of wonder comes into play, or perhaps awe, or maybe joy. Some people describe the feeling as a spiritual or even religious experience; Paul McCartney calls it ‘childlike wonder’. I call it ‘magic’.

Everyone’s list of recorded albums which have that ‘magic’ will be different, but all of them will be very short. My list of ‘magical’ recordings, the ones that are not just artistically and technically perfect but which inspire, which hold unique joys in every bar, is not long at all: Kleiber’s Brahms Fourth, Blomstedt’s Bruckner Seventh, Dausgaard’s Beethoven Third, Pollini in the last Beethoven piano sonatas, Karel Ancerl’s Janácek Glagolitic Mass, and a live broadcast (on Brilliant Classics) of Leonid Kogan playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. To that list I add this recording.

You may add it to your list, too. We can still argue about the compositional merits of the Bernstein Mass, now looking at the work from an entirely different perspective and through a new, clearer lens. But this recording, one of the most important issues of the past decade, proves beyond all doubt the power of this Mass to move, to inspire, to break and remake hearts. If you can listen to the “Simple Song” or the utterly overwhelming catastrophe that is the “Agnus Dei” without being deeply moved, the fault does not lie with the composer or the performers. This recording is one for the ages.

Gramophone, October 2010

…the premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass was one of the most controversial of all music debuts. Audience members rushed to carp (it was “derivative, attitudinising drivel” according to the prominent critic John Simon), or clap, with the Washington Post’s Paul Hume calling it “the greatest music Bernstein has written”. To his dying day Bernstein himself felt it to be among the most important things he had done (it’s worth recalling again his reaction to Gramophone critic Edward Seckerson’s suggestion to him that the Mass was “seminal”—“A critic’s word,” he replied, “but I might just kiss you on the lips for saying it!”). Now public opinion has caught up with his own…and Marin Alsop has had a great deal to do with that.

As one of Bernstein’s last students, Alsop has tirelessly evangelised for this work. She understands it better than almost anyone, telling Seckerson in this magazine last year, “What’s interesting about Mass is just how prophetic it’s turned out to be. All those boundaries between genres, between different styles of music—they’re gone.” As it happened, Alsop’s long-awaited recording of the piece was pipped to the post by another, also fine, recording from Chandos conducted by Kristjan Järvi. But it is the Alsop on Naxos, with her fine Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which to my mind shows the greater understanding of its myriad styles and undergoes the more convincing and coherent dramatic arc. And she is also blessed with a riveting performer in the central role of the Celebrant—the aptly named Jubilant Sykes. He throws himself into the performance heart, soul and throat (there are times indeed when one fears for his vocal health, such is his no-holds-barred level of commitment).

So we finally have a worthy successor to Bernstein’s own recording. “[Alsop creates] a dramatic slipstream that is powered relentlessly onwards by the awkward discontinuities and jagged narrative…go tell it on the mountain”, wrote Philip Clark in his review. Power—emotional, musical—is the word.

James Inverne
Gramophone, September 2010

This new recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass is a powerful depiction of a crisis of faith, but not in the work. Readers of last issue’s cover story will have waited impatiently to see what, or rather whether, Bernstein champion (and former pupil) Marin Alsop would deliver. Her answer is vital and affirmative. No more, surely, will Mass be seen as the composer’s neglected child.

The performance pivots around Jubilant Sykes in the central role of the Celebrant. An incredibly vivid performer, he variously howls, whispers and croons his way through the score. Though never overdone, it is a portrayal of exaggerations and sudden contrasts. And if that seems absolutely on the money for a character who alternately praises and questions God (though not until the very end do you feel that this Celebrant entirely believes in his own prayers), it also serves as a fascinating reminder that the composer venerated Mahler.

Alsop is at the root of everything, of course, and her Baltimore players surge ever forward, even when it’s not entirely clear whether answers will be forthcoming. When they do, in the final climax, the long-breathed “Laudate Deum” comes as a release, but a measure one. Alsop and co have probed so deeply, it is not at all assured that the old doubts will not resurface at some point. Blistering.

Joseph Dalton
My Big Gay Ears, February 2010

Beyond the lively and heartfelt performance—especially enjoy the punch BSO brass in “I Believe in God”—also admirable is the audio mix by producer Steven Epstein and engineer Richard King. There’s a lot going on in Mass—chorus, children’s choir, umpteen soloists, orchestra, electric guitars, kazoos, etc.—and it all comes through with clarity and verve.

Philip Greenfield
American Record Guide, January 2010

As we know, Bernstein himself gave us a recording of his Mass that’s still the standard for anyone who wants to hear what the fuss was about at the brand new John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts back on 8 September 1971. For pure excitement and a sense of occasion, it has never been bettered; and there are places in the score where Bernstein brings things out in a way no one else does.

Chandos recently released a concert performance conducted by Kristjan Jarvi, who took something of a revisionist approach to Bernstein’s handiwork (July/Aug 2009). I was interested by his operatic baritone Celebrant, his more restrained management of Mass’s crossover elements, and his international cast that brought some interesting wrinkles to a uniquely American creation.

To the mix we now add Marin Alsop, a Bernstein acolyte, who has done her mentor proud with this performance of his wild and wooly Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. Everything here is in pure Bernstein mode; no revisionists need apply. And while Bernstein himself will always own the work as its prime interpreter, Alsop brings a lot to the table. For starters, she has the best Celebrant yet recorded in Jubilant Sykes, who takes center stage with true charisma and an endless repertoire of vocal nuances that really help put the score across. There’s an intimacy to his approach—conversational almost—but when its time to open the floodgates and sing from the heart, the power is there. He’s a force.

This is impressive chorally as well, with the Morgan State Choir and the youngsters from Peabody singing up a storm. Bernstein’s voices sometimes went sour—especially in the final sequence, which isn’t nearly as affecting as it is here. (Jarvi ends it powerfully as well.) Between the Celebrant, the Morgan choir, and some of the bit soloists, Lenny’s rock and roll elements have gone R&B under Alsop’s baton, which pleases me a great deal. I think it makes Mass sound less like a period piece and more like something we own ourselves nearly four decades after the premiere. (Some of that twangy guitar went out with “ya dig, daddyo”.)

Alsop and her fine orchestra come to us in excellent sound. Indeed, the Naxos engineers make Jarvi’s concert performance sound pale by comparison. And while Sony did a great job using their 20-bit remastering to refurbish Bernstein’s studio recording, the sound here is bigger, cleaner, and more natural. In sum, no one who loves (or even likes) Mass should be without this. Notes and the text are included.

Leslie Wright
MusicWeb International, December 2009

Leonard Bernstein’s Mass has had a most peculiar recorded history. When the work was premiered in 1971, it was roundly criticized both for its mixture of musical styles and its blasphemous text. The work then seemed to lay dormant for more than thirty years. I still have my LPs of the original recording, but never thought much about going back to them. At the time I remember being impressed with parts of the score, primarily the “Simple Song” and sections that reminded me of the composer’s Chichester Psalms, a far stronger work, I thought, and my favorite “serious” piece of Bernstein’s. Now within the past few years there have been at least three new recordings of Mass causing a reassessment. I have not heard the recordings by Kent Nagano (Harmonia Mundi) or Kristjan Järvi (Chandos), both of which have received positive, if mixed, reviews. I won’t go into the background of the score here, as Simon Thompson has already done so in his highly laudatory review of the Alsop recording on this website.

I will say, right off, however, that I also am extremely impressed with this new account and now understand this work better than ever before. Indeed, I find Mass to be a very infectious piece and one that I have trouble getting out of my head. I never realized before how much of the score recalls West Side Story. I doubt Mass is Bernstein’s greatest masterpiece as some have recently thought, but I can say that it is a much better work than I gave it credit before. Oddly enough, what may have seemed out of date ten or twenty years ago, seems timely now. The themes of humankind’s destruction of its own kind and of other species play an important role in Mass as does questioning the role of organized religion—with the right-wing evangelical movement’s influence on the political front. Now to the disc at hand.

Obviously, Bernstein’s recording remains the yardstick by which subsequent performances will be judged. Almost immediately the most notable difference is in the voice of the Celebrant. If one is used to the more straightforward singing of Alan Titus on the original recording, Jubilant Sykes’ style may seem “over the top” in its more dramatic presentation. His voice can change from beautifully soft singing to crooning, as the text requires. Once one gets used to it—and I surely did—it seems to be more interesting than Titus’s approach. Then there are the textual changes. Nowhere in the intelligently written booklet notes is there a mention of who changed the text and for what reason. The changes, though relatively minor, do not seem to me to be an improvement. Nor, however, do they do the work any real harm. For example, the Second Blues Singer in the Part IV Confession sings the following on the original recording: “If you ask me to love you on a bed of spice, Now that might be nice…It’s easy to keep the flair in your affair.” On the new recording it is, “If you ask me to love you in some real good vice Now that might be nice…It’s easy to have yourself a fine affair.” Later, on the original recording the Third Blues Singer sings, “It’s easy to criticize and beat my jive, But hard to deny how neatly I survive.” On the new one, it is, “It’s easy for you to dig my jim jam jive, And, baby, please observe how neatly I survive.” There are many other places in the Mass where similar changes are made. If Bernstein himself made them or approved of them, that’s fine. But the listener should be told. The other thing that could be improved upon is the listing of the various soloists singing the roles of the street people. They are all listed as a group in the beginning of the booklet, rather than giving them credit as individuals by each number they sing. They play as vital a role as the Morgan State University Choir, Peabody Children’s Chorus and the Baltimore Symphony all marshalled under the expert direction of Marin Alsop. Fortunately, young Asher Edward Wulfman, the boy soprano, gets separate billing. He clearly deserves it as much as Jubilant Sykes does for his greater part in the work.

The recording itself leaves nothing to be desired with sumptuous sound that at the same time allows for very clear diction. One hardly needs the text to follow the lyrics. If you haven’t heard Mass for a while you ought to get a copy of this recording. With its exciting performance and outstanding sound, it’s not likely to be superseded for the foreseeable future.

Paul Seydor
The Absolute Sound, December 2009

Written in 1971, two years into Nixon’s second term, for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the performing Arts in Washington, D.C., Mass in the retrospect seems the perfect expression of the crises and malaise of its time. For reasons both obvious and painful, its relevance remains undiminished forty years later, Bernstein’s masterpiece, brutally criticized at the time, now looming larger than ever. This new Naxos brings to three the complete recordings in addition to the original cast, conducted by Bernstein himself with a smell-of-the-greasepaint vitality that remains unique, Marin Alsop, a Bernstein protégé who’s made the work a specialty, handily eclipses the other two and rivals the composer’s own. Leading her Baltimore Symphony and two choruses, Alsop is easily his match for command of the score and its kaleidoscope of musical-stylistic idioms; several of her singers are better; and, best of all, she has Jubilant Sykes, who was born to play the part of the Celebrant. In his climactic fourteen-minute set piece you can practically touch the intensity. Sonics are transparent and dynamic, though I wouldn’t have minded more imaginative staging for the microphones, à la the late John Culshaw. No matter; for me this is the album of the year.

Jed Distler
Gramophone, December 2009

Since there’s something in Leonard Bernstein’s Mass for everyone (classical, pop, gospel, jazz, atonality, lyrics both clever and sappy, rhythms both languid and snappy), it makes sense to give a gift that might well please all, and, in Marin Alsop’s standard-setting recording, pleases me no end.

Graham Strahle
The Weekend Australian Magazine, December 2009

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Edward Seckerson
Gramophone, December 2009

Marin Alsop’s fiercely committed rendition of Bernstein’s crisis-of-faith masterpiece is right up there with the composer’s own—and that really is saying something. Pace the naysayers, Bernstein’s belief in the power of music to heal broken communications is a sentiment worth passing on.

Peter Aczel
The Audio Critic, November 2009

All in all, I can’t imagine a more resplendent performance than the Alsop/Baltimore, and the audio is also state-of-the art, with tremendous dynamic range, majestic bass, great transparency, and wonderful three-dimensionality.

James Manishen
Winnipeg Free Press, November 2009

BERNSTEIN’S audacious eclecticism in this crisis-of-faith Vietnam War-era blend of protest, politics and religious searching stirred up a lot of controversy when it premiered at the opening of the Kennedy Center, Sept. 8, 1971. Since then, what Bernstein subtitled A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers has had a chance to brew, its four recordings filling the glass in Bernstein’s favour as simply a great work, bursting with creativity, energy and arguably his finest and most personal musical happening.

Based on the liturgy, the plot line covers issues of faith in a Godless universe, toured through by a celebrant (Sykes) who undergoes his own existential crises. Bernstein’s pumping rock, jazz and host of other originalities divert at every turn, the massive forces used with stunning resource and power.

Alsop had been touring Mass when this was made. Her comprehensiveness shows in an excellent account, if a bit shy, of the special edge Bernstein delivered in his own recording. Outstanding choral singing and soloists.

Lindoro Almaviva
Parterre Box, November 2009

The new Naxos recording is a welcome addition to the discography of this work. What I liked the most about this recording is how unabashedly un-operatic it is. I was not prepared to how much I was going to like the performance, nor for the emotional impact the performance was going to have on me. I was also surprised at how easy to listen it was. Before I could even think about it, I was in track 19! …Listening to this performance didn’t feel like a chore. I happily went back for a second listening.

Leading the pack is Marin Alsop, who has crafted a balance of the serious and the profane that gives this recording a contemporary feel. How many pieces can you name that still feel fresh nearly 40 years after their premiere? It simply does not feel old; it sounds modern, relevant, fierce.

Honor place must go to the Baltimore Symphony for their excellent playing. The orchestral meditations are played beautifully, but so it the rest of the piece. They provide the singers with a fantastic cushion of sound to work their magic; and work their magic they do. The Mass is a bitch to learn and perform for the chorus. At the end of the performance you just want to sit on a bath and soak, ’cause you are sore as all hell.

Morgan State and their students should be very proud of their chorus. They not only sounded fabulous, but the music is performed with accuracy and spirit. Bravo to all the chorus members for their fabulous effort. Big bravo also to the Peabody Children’s Choir. Their work in appropriately described as angelic, specially in the Sanctus.

I think one of the issues that the earlier generation had with the Mass, besides the irreverent tone, is the fact that it is hard to classify. Is it classical? Is it Broadway? It certainly has elements of both and one of the ones that sticks like a sore thumb is the many small roles that call for singers to do everything their teachers told them not to do.

Naxos has outdone themselves in casting singers that fill these parts with fierce determination…In the center of this and any Mass is the priest, or the celebrant. I have come to realize that you need a good baritenor or a belter for the role—a Ted Neeley of sorts, someone who just sings without thinking of how this F is placed, or how am I going to hit this Ab here. This is a role that requires guts and the ability to leap into the abyss without much fear.

I think casting Jubilant Sykes as the celebrant was a stroke of genius on Naxos’ part. His singing is beautiful and polished. It is not a perfect performance, here and there are signs that he had to work hard to reach some of the higher notes in the score, but he does what many would expect: he leaves the “serious baritone” sound behind and delves into the character’s descent into doubt convincingly.

Let’s be honest here, the Celebrant is not a traditional baritone role, even less a serious one. Sykes is obviously a trained baritone, but his interest in jazz and his experience singing gospel makes him almost perfect for the role; you get the burnish sound of a baritone with the mind of someone who knows when to let go and use tricks from a different bag to create a portrayal that is convincing and that carries a huge emotional impact.

His “Simple Song” is, as needed, simple, beautifully vocalized. As the character is beset with doubts, Sykes proved how intelligent a singer he is by gradually leaving behind the operatic sound and using a more pop sound culminating in a riveting anger scene.

In summary, Naxos has brought together a fabulous performance that transcends whatever blemishes you might find along the way. I think this performance should be in any Bernstein’s fan’s library. I am glad it somehow made it into mine and I am sure this recording will bring me many hours of enjoyment.

Michael Quinn
Choir & Organ, November 2009

This magnificent new recording combines youthful energy and vital experience…[Alsop] conducts with a fervent belief in the blazing variety and validity of the score. The result betters the composer’s own recording and makes a bold and persuasive claim for Mass.

John Shinners
Enjoy the Music, November 2009

…I think Marin Alsop, a Bernstein protégé, delivers the most compelling and satisfying account of them all in her new Naxos discs…The models for Mass are clear: it’s what you would get if you put Britten’s War Requiem (1962) in a blender with Hair (1968) and hit “puree.”…Bernstein’s “radical chic” (Tom Wolfe’s famous epithet) is on display in the clichéd anti-war sentiments of his modern lyrics, which also most glaringly date the work as straight out of the cultural turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In composing it on the fly Bernstein, always a musical magpie, seems to have mad-grabbed for bits of everything he had written before.  He described it as “the whole Latin Mass, symphonic music, plus pop-sounds and blues.”  It’s way beyond that. His Broadway persona is definitely there in melodies that could have been sung by the juvenile delinquents of West Side Story or the philosophe choruses of Candide.  The hymns and harmonically dense chorales, the work’s strongpoint, are reminiscent of his Chichester Psalms. He wrote the “Simple Song” that opens the work—constructed simply from a descending D-major scale—for his abandoned score to Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Franco Zeffirelli’s film about proto-flower child St. Francis. The merry opening melody of the Sanctus began life as a birthday song for his long-time secretary Helen Coates.  (Another present: Paul Simon’s lyric Christmas gift to Bernstein, the four stanzas “Half of the people are stoned / And the other half are waiting for the next election. / Half the people are drowned / And the other half are swimming in the wrong direction.”) One of several collaborators on the work, brought in at the eleventh hour in the rush to finish it, was twenty-three-year-old Stephen Schwartz, whose Godspell had just become a smash, counter-cultural hit. He brought the lyrics some hippie street cred.

Structurally it is a complete Catholic mass. But its subtitle explains what Bernstein is up to: “A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers.” Interwoven through Mass, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes clumsily, are Broadway ballads, operatic arias, moving chorales, a bit of unconvincing, trendy electronic atonalism (Bernstein: “It wasn’t my idea!”), rock and roll, R&B, a Jewish Kedusha, a little klezmer music, spoken letters from a draft-resister and his family (slightly, and thankfully, abridged here), and, just for fun, a circus march (with an interlude for whistling and a kazoo chorus).  It is also eclectic —and gigantic—in its forces, more than 200 people: a very large orchestra (with nine percussionists, including some West Side Story bongos—and not counting some vigorous hand-clapping), a full chorus, a smaller on-stage chorus of soloists and a chamber orchestra “street band” including electric guitars, a boys choir, and two portable organs, one “church,” one “rock.” Robert Hilferty, in his excellent program notes for this recording, pinpoints it as “a kind of Symphony of a Thousand for the Vietnam Era.”

The theatricality of Mass is in the contemporary story played out alongside the traditional liturgy. It traces the Celebrant’s journey from pure, simple faith (“A Simple Song”), to the ritual formalism of his role as high priest of the Latin mass (ironically, introduced by the circus march) and the crisis of faith it sows (“Things Get Broken”), and back again to a simple faith, now tempered, in the conclusion’s recapitulation of the reverent simplicity of the beginning.  All of this is spiced by the now sincere, now sardonic comments (modern liturgical tropes) of the street chorus, which itself wavers between faith, doubt and anger at a silent G-d.

Alsop gives that story a spectacular telling here. The jewel in her crown is baritone Jubilant Sykes’s Celebrant, whose emotionally expressive voice (despite the rumor that he had a cold during recording) moves easily between the musical theater and operatic demands of the role.  All the Celebrants in the four available recordings—Alan Titus for Bernstein, Jerry Hadley for Nagano, Randall Scarlata for Järvi, and Sykes—are appealing, but Sykes brings a poignancy to his performance that makes it stand out. This is, after all, a theater piece, so someone who can sing and act serves it well. Sykes gives a tour-de-force performance of “Things get Broken,” the fourteen-minute aria at the end of Mass that both dramatically sums up the perplexed theology behind the story and brilliantly repeats fragments of pretty much every melody that has gone before it. (In that sense, it’s a key to understanding the melodic elements on which Mass is built. Here again, Hilferty’s notes are a helpful guide to the motifs of the sprawling work.)

Alsop is better than her competition, even better than Bernstein, at making sense of the musical threads that actually hold together what struck so many early critics as just a mishmash. There are so many disparate elements to coordinate in the almost two-hour-long Mass, from the solemn and grand, to the colloquial, to the frankly corny, but she keeps things moving and coherent. I particularly like her transition into the Offertory, a quiet Latin sequence that erupts in a wild dance—perhaps King David and the Israelites romping before the Ark—that surges forward like some mighty crowd abandoned in joy. Alsop is especially effective at conveying the several dramatic shifts in mood at the end of the Mass: from the Sanctus, at first cheerful, and then peaceful as the Kedusha emerges from it, and finally triumphant, to the percussive and belligerent Agnus dei with its harsh shouts of “Dona nobis pacem” that give way to a long R&B demand for peace before collapsing into musical chaos, to the Celebrant’s emotional breakdown in the schizophrenic “Things Get Broken,” to the very moving, simple hymns that end the work.

The singing is uniformly excellent. The Morgan State University Choir is absolutely solid in tone and articulation. There’s not a weak voice among the twenty or so soloists of the street band; even better, their every word is clear, which is important to appreciate Bernstein’s attention to the wordplay in the English lyrics.  This is the first recording of Mass I’ve heard that I didn’t need its libretto in hand to understand the words. The intonation of the Peabody Children’s Chorus is always light and steady, unlike some of Alsop’s competitors. Give a special nod to boy soprano Asher Edward Wulfman’s absolutely assured solos. With so much singing, it could be easy to forget the orchestra, but the Baltimore players are full of energy throughout and easily switch among the many musical idioms of the piece. They shine in the three purely orchestral “meditations” that punctuate the music…It occurs to me that, ironically, Mass may turn out to be his greatest work, a distillation of all his styles, popular and serious, warts and all, that both reflects its era and its creator and still speaks today.

Gapplegate Music Review, October 2009

The original version as recorded by Bernstein shortly after the work’s premier was the one I had on eight-track. There were no others. The performance had an exciting, almost feverish quality about it.

Now we have another version, newly recorded by the Baltimore Symphony, Martin Alsop conducting (Naxos, 2-CDs). Jubilant Sykes is the baritone principal and the Morgan State University Choir and Peabody Children’s Chorus handle the large-group vocal parts.

Hearing this new version brings back all those times in 1972 when I listened to the original recording endlessly. But it also gives the work new life. Alsop’s interpretation is a bit Apollonian to Bernstein’s Dionysus. There is a kind of meticulous care in the choral and orchestral balance and more transparency than out and out passion. The rock passages sound less like something from the Fillmore or the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and a little more timeless.

That’s fine.

That is not such a bad thing.

This is a work that obviously has outlasted the times it came out of. That an interpretation today has more of a reflective bent than the one that came out of that world of chaos that was 1971 (the year of its first performance) is to be expected, even desired. This version in a way forces you to listen to the music on its own terms today and forget the revery of nostalgia that the original can produce. What it tells you by its production in a changed world is that Bernstein’s Mass was not a kind of freak product of those times, but an American masterpiece that lives on with undiminished power.

In short, this is a fine rendition of the mass that I would not hesitate to recommend.

Steven Suskin
Playbill, October 2009

It’s always a pleasure to find a new CD that I can wholeheartedly endorse, and here we have one that is indispensable: Marin Alsop’s recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Bernstein’s so-called “Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers” purposely crossed genres, as a result of which it has always resided somewhere outside the musical theatre classification. And as a result of which, many fans of musical theatre—and fans of Bernstein as well—have more or less overlooked it. Imagine, another score to keep on the shelf alongside West Side Story and Candide—and many Bernstein fans don’t know it? That has been the fate of Mass, alas; Bernstein’s excellent 1971 recording of the score has always been around, more or less, but usually grouped with his symphonic work and relatively undiscovered by Broadwayites. Here we have a sparkling new two-disc recording, available from the relatively low-priced Naxos label. No excuses, please; if you consider yourself a fan of Bernstein and don’t know Mass, now is the time to discover it. And if you know and enjoy your Mass, you’ll no doubt be thrilled by this new recording.

Mass, of course, is the piece that was commissioned by Jacqueline Onassis in 1966 for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The grand premiere at the Opera House on Sept. 8, 1971, just across the street from the Watergate, arrived under storm clouds; Bernstein’s pop-rock, anti-war version of a Catholic mass contained elements seemingly designed to offend anyone over 30 who wasn’t exceedingly liberal. Certainly, the President who inherited it—Mr Nixon—must have seen it as an enormous stick poked in his eye (although he apparently stayed away from the 12-performance engagement). “O you people of power, your hour is now, you may plan to rule forever, but you never do somehow”; this might have been seen as a direct joust in those pre-Watergate days. Mass, which was directed by Gordon Davidson and choreographed by Alvin Ailey, then moved on to a three-week stint at the Metropolitan Opera House. Too big for a Broadway theatre, with almost 250 performers and musicians, but not exactly welcome in higher-brow environs. That turned out to be the fate of the piece.

Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, knows Bernstein well; a protégé of the master, she has had considerable success with his work. As a major keeper of the flame, she undertook a grand concert version of Mass last October (her fifth time conducting the piece). This traveled to Carnegie Hall as part of last fall’s Bernstein Festival; the performance on Oct. 24 was decidedly a highlight of my entire theatregoing season.

Ms Alsop does a phenomenal job; she has clearly studied Bernstein’s recording, and effortlessly inhabits the score. But she enhances the piece; certain tempos are altered in a manner that heightens the emotion and adds an element of danger. The impression, beginning midway through, is of a watch-spring being wound tighter and tighter. Alsop retains control, but then the score seems to sneak away from her until—finally—the spring is twisted too tight. It breaks and unravels with a clang. This is, of course, precisely what happens in the piece; the Celebrant carefully and valiantly holds on as his faith is bombarded on all sides. Finally, though, “things get broken.” The Celebrant’s breakdown is mirrored, as it were, from the podium, resulting in a Mass that absolutely soars and startles.

Bernstein, who conducted Mass for the original recording [CBS M2K 44593] but not in the theatre, seems to be running on adrenaline. He couldn’t have been especially familiar with the score when he took everybody next door to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for the recording sessions, struggling as he was to finish the writing. (Certain portions of the text have always sounded like dummy lyrics which never got replaced. Stephen Schwartz, who as a 23-year-old newcomer collaborated with Bernstein on the lyrics, appears to have recently fixed up some of these spots at Alsop’s behest.) It is foolish to opine as to how Bernstein would respond to what Alsop has wrought, but I’m inclined to think that he would heartily and vehemently approve, with hugs all around.

What raises this Mass above all others is the presence of Jubilant Sykes as The Celebrant. Alan Titus, who originated the role back in 1971, was very good indeed; but Sykes not only sings this massive part, he acts it. Listening to this recording, you get a sense of the Celebrant as a character; Mass is his journey from religious exaltation to a dark and crushing despair. We can hear the Celebrant of Mr Sykes thinking as he goes along—and fighting the thoughts, which distract him from the religious service. He is wound tighter and tighter, like the aforementioned watch-spring, as he progresses from “The Lord’s Prayer” to “I Go On” to the “Sanctus”; and his ultimate breakdown, in “Things Get Broken,” is simply devastating. Sykes, with the support and assent of Alsop, brings humanity to Bernstein’s Mass; and that is the extra magic of this recording.

Alsop leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Morgan State University Choir, and the Peabody Children’s Chorus. Nobody bothers to credit orchestrators Jonathan Tunick and Hershy Kay, so I’ll do that here. Bernstein knew what he wanted in this piece, certainly, but he didn’t have the time or presumably the inclination to do it himself. (I understand that the composer sheepishly apologized when their names were omitted from the 1971 recording.) And while the 20-person Street Chorus is listed in alphabetical order, none of the soloists are delineated. Thus let me point out that “I Don’t Know” is sung by Timothy Shew and Dan Micciche; “Thank You” (“There once were days so bright”) is sung by Amy Justman; “Non Credo” (“And was made man”) is sung by Kevin Vortmann; Morgan James does “Hurry”; and Max Perlman leads “I Believe in God.” Most special of all is Theresa McCarthy, the soloist for “World Without End.” (Street Chorus members without major solos include Sarah Uriate Berry.)

But it is Ms Alsop, and Mr Sykes, who take this worthy “theatre piece for singers, players and dancers” and give us an even finer recording than Mr Bernstein’s original. Those of you who have been missing out on this score for years be prepared for the reward of this thrilling Mass.

Simon Thompson
MusicWeb International, October 2009

This fantastic set is a true revelation. Before sitting down to listen to these discs I had only ever read about Bernstein’s Mass and the comments were universally disparaging. Alsop’s eye-opening performance shows it to be what it is: a genuinely daring attempt to fuse a huge mix of musical genres into a theatre piece which explores faith and doubt, loss and gain, and pulling it off remarkably successfully.

Mass was written in response to a commission from Jackie Kennedy Onassis for a work to open the new John F. Kennedy Centre for Performing Arts in Washington D.C. Bernstein wrote of the commission, “I’ve always wanted to compose a service of one sort or another, and I toyed with ecumenical services that would combine elements from various religions…The Mass is also an extremely dramatic event in itself—it even suggests a theatre work.” Mass is indeed a theatre work. The Latin text serves as a framework around which to orientate the lives of various characters and groups. At the centre is the celebrant himself who begins by articulating his “simple song” to God but goes through a crisis of faith, smashing the holy vessels towards the end, before he is rehabilitated by the simplicity of belief in the final moments. Elsewhere the congregation, known as the Street People, spend most of the work questioning whether there is any merit to the mass at all: during the Credo a Rock band answers with the words “I believe in God / but does God believe in me? I’ll believe in any god / if any god there be” and elsewhere “and then a plaster god like you has the gall to tell me what to do.”

Bernstein was right: it’s a tremendously dramatic journey, thanks in part to the additional lyrics provided by Wunderkind Stephen Schwartz, fresh from his triumph in Godspell. Bernstein provides music that positively thumps with energy, encompassing classical, jazz, rock and blues, as well as some traditional Jewish elements. With all of this you would think that Mass should be a rag-tag mix of genres without much to keep it together, but in a performance like this you are instantly impressed with the undeniable unity of the piece.

The playing is fantastic from everyone. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conjure up the cacophonous racket of the Kyrie as if it was Stockhausen but demonstrate great beauty in the first Meditation and the touching simplicity of the final Pax section. The marching band, rock group and jazz ensemble are all given absolutely equal weighting—no sense of hierarchy in this most catholic of Catholic masses—and they all play tremendously. The zany marching music that accompanies the first entrance of the Street People is chaotic and lawless, the antithesis of all that the military march stands for, and guitarists for the jazz and rock elements burst onto the senses with sometimes disconcerting suddenness, jolting the listener up in his seat and forcing him to pay more attention.

The singing is fantastic too. Jubilant Sykes’ Celebrant has a fantastically appropriate voice for this music, dark and rich but sexy too, with more than a hint of danger. He just sounds so right for this role: I can’t imagine anyone better placed to play the role of the preacher turned heretic and his is one of the finest musical portrayals I’ve come across this year. The sense of gathering uncertainty is palpable throughout the performance, from the beautiful simplicity of the opening, though to the experimental confidence of the Sanctus—“Mi alone is only me, but me with sol, me with soul, means a song is beginning.” He is gut-wrenching at the depth of his doubt but wonderfully positive in his final rehabilitation, making me feel like I had gone on the journey with him. His Street People, the Morgan State University Choir, are far from being backing singers. They have an energy and thrill to them that you naturally associate with the Jets and Sharks in West Side Story (the “Sermon” section reminded me a lot of Gee, Officer Krupke) and each solo contribution is distinctly characterised so as to create a feeling of community falling apart but ultimately growing together again.

The recording engineers have done a fantastic job in capturing the many different acoustics needed for this work: no less than ten times a pre-recorded taped performance is needed, and the ear is jolted into an entirely different space for those in comparison to the “live” performance. They also use the full stereo arc to maximum effect so as to distinguish between the different characters and performers.

Highest praise of all must go to Alsop, however. Having once been Bernstein’s pupil she has now become the most convincing advocate on disc for this previously problematic work. She holds together every strand of this endlessly diverse score, welding it into a convincing musical and dramatic whole. This is perhaps her greatest recording to date, and I don’t doubt that she would say it’s the one closest to her heart.

Added to all this is an excellent booklet essay by Robert Hilferty and full sung texts. At Naxos super-budget price you can afford to check this out without much risk. It may be the cheapest Mass on the market but it’s also by far the best. Do not hesitate.

Philip Clark
Classic FM, October 2009


Happy times a go-go  for fans of Bernstein’s Mass…the extraordinary baritone Jubilant Sykes takes the central role of the celebrant,…Alsop also relishes the stylistic smorgasbord, from which flows an incisive dramatic whole.

Joshua Rosenblum
Opera News, October 2009

Marin Alsop’s new recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass was made in conjunction with performances of the work in New York, part of the citywide celebration of what would have been Bernstein’s ninetieth birthday. Taping was done in Baltimore, where Alsop is music director of the Baltimore Symphony, in October 2008, just prior to live performances at Carnegie Hall and at the United Palace Theater in Washington Heights later the same week.

The big news here is American baritone Jubilant Sykes, singing the musically and dramaturgically challenging role of the Celebrant. Sykes stakes a bold claim to the part right out of the gate with “Simple Song”; he does remarkable things at the pianissimo end of his dynamic range, giving the piece a heightened level of reverential awe. Some might judge it overdone, but he unquestionably reinvents the number. In general, Sykes is authentically passionate and vocally enthralling, masterfully fusing his classical, jazz and gospel backgrounds to the point where it seems the piece must have been written for him. His “The Word of the Lord” has a compelling, almost shamanistic power I’ve not heard elsewhere, and he makes every word of the oceanic, fourteen-minute “Things Get Broken” seem essential.

Quite a few tracks sound remarkably like the 1971 Bernstein original, in terms of tempo, balance and spirit. Alsop, who studied with Bernstein at Tanglewood, clearly knows and respects that durable and inspiring recording, but she has her own complementary vision. She knits large sections together coherently and does a particularly good job of reconciling the schizoid series of variations in “Meditation No. 2.” There is unusual clarity and vibrancy in the choral singing. Soprano Amy Justman provides some especially beautiful phrasing in “Thank You,” and the affecting “World Without End” drives to an exciting climax, led by soloist Theresa McCarthy. Boy soprano Asher Edward Wulfman kicks off the sumptuous closing “Secret Songs” with heavenly purity. Max Perlman’s bright, propulsive “I Believe in God” is another standout.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, September 2009

Every once in a while, a big piece of music comes along that is so compelling that it defies being treated as background music. Leonard Bernstein’s Mass is one of those works. Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and premiered on Sept. 8, 1971, this 105-minute mix of sacred and secular, music and theatre, opera and oratorio, classical and pop, should be considered as one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. This new, two-CD recording by a cast of hundreds gives Mass its full due. The main singing role, a priest who loses his faith and then finds it again, is magnificently sung by baritone Jubilant Sykes. The same holds true for the rest of the singers—the Morgan State University Choir, the Peabody Children’s Chorus and sweet-voiced boy soprano Asher Edward Wulfman. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, augmented by guitar and percussion, finds the right cutting edge under Marin Alsop’s baton. Bernstein (who died in 1990), teamed up with then-20-something Broadway composer (and Wicked creator) Stephen Schwartz. You can tell that they worked in the afterglow of Woodstock and the shadows of the Vietnam War—a battle between light and dark, good and evil, that continues to this day. Thanks to this great recording, Mass can connect with us as viscerally today as it did 38 years ago.

Howard Goldstein
BBC Music Magazine, September 2009

This Naxos issue is a virtual triumph from beginning to end…In terms of technical achievement it trumps all…the Baltimore Symphony plays most eloquently, particularly in the many lyrical woodwind passages. Engineering is superb, as is [the] booklet essay…Alsop’s tight-knit, symphonic pacing delineates the structure of the work without diluting its exuberant eclecticism or softening its hard road towards spiritual awakening.

Philip Clark
Gramophone, September 2009

Marin Alsop takes on Bernstein’s Mass and emerges triumphant

To all the naysayers, bug-eyed sceptics and disapproving doubting Thomases, listen up: a third apostle has spoken.

If Leonard Bernstein’s own 1971 recording of his Mass (yes, italics—it’s a “Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers”, not a setting of the liturgy) is Gospel, Marin Alsop is the latest disciple to evangelise Bernstein’s most ecstatic, charismatic and sanctified music. Compared to the intellectual fence-sitting and crackerbarrel mysticism that—since Holy Minimalism became the latest must-have lifestyle soundtrack—is every place, Bernstein’s relationship with God is dangerous, probing, transformational. There are those, of course, who proffer that Bernstein thought he was God, that’s why he could stand in defiance against Him. But, no—Mass reveals a man thirsting for faith but petrified of blind acceptance. Bernstein’s religion was muscular and intellectualised, and the experience of Mass expands, rather than contracts, the further you travel towards the essence of its cosmology.

When Kent Nagano brought down the tablets of stone in 2003, frankly, he dropped some. Jerry Hadley sang the anchoring role of the Celebrant with obedient accuracy but lacked the lusty, unselfconscious mania with which Alan Titus sexed up Bernstein’s account. Released earlier this year, Randall Scarlata in Kristjan Jarvi’s performance preached with soul and fervour: but Alsop’s Jubilant Sykes is the best of all possible Celebrants.

There can be few roles in contemporary music theatre that demand so many sides of a performer. The Celebrant is a near-constant presence on stage throughout the just-short-of-two-hour duration. He must disentangle music of gnarly complexity (“The Word of the Lord”), and bringing appropriate sincerity to writing that could slide towards doe-eyed naivety (“Simple Song“). “The Lord’s Prayer”, segueing into “I Go On”, needs an operatic sensibility, while the Celebrant must also swing like a hipster jazzer and declaim with authentic rockist swank.

And those are just the technical riders. Mass follows the Celebrant to the darkest place a proselytiser for faith can travel—from sneaking doubt towards a full-scale breakdown as, in Bernstein’s climactic scene, he trashes the altar and sends the sacraments scattering. Sykes brings an intensity that chills. In his joy is pain; in the agony of his crack-up is hope that does, indeed, ultimately blossom. His voice shakes with James Brown’s ecstasy, snarls with Janis Joplin-like indigence and projects through the labyrinth of Bernstein’s tricky melodic contours like any trained voice would. Sykes was born to play this part.

The stage action was Bernstein’s parable for 1970s America; an America fighting a controversial war, ravaged by political and racial conflict, and the assassination of anybody who was a force for good. To portray a society in freefall, Bernstein illuminates all its music. At the beginning vocal and percussive fragments leer at the audience from out of quadraphonic speakers like latter-day Ives, and musical modernity breaks out everywhere. An atonal oboe solo sounds like calculated blasphemy, stretching chromatic choral fragments leave singers grasping free-for-all notes in aleatoric freak-outs; tonality gets refracted through tone-rows and clusters. Over this shifting abstraction, Bernstein layers church music, blues, jazz, even a brief quote from Beethoven. This is our world now, Bernstein proclaims: no place for art that thinks it knows itself.

Just as the Celebrant flips comes the most remarkable passage of all—a funky 10-bar refrain of “Dona nobis pacem” which is reiterated deliriously as blues singers improvise added lines and, eventually, the orchestra is invited to holler above “anything from the entire musical literature”. Although she doesn’t drive things quite as far as Bernstein, Alsop ensures this passage pushes the Celebrant over the top and Sykes’s portrayal of the breakdown is moving and sensitive; the orchestral playing too, here and throughout, is lusty and unafraid to let go. Jarvi’s handling of that same moment is more contained, and his tendency is to stress points of demarcation within Bernstein’s stylistic smorgasbord. Alsop is pacier, creating a dramatic slipstream that is powered relentlessly onwards by the awkward discontinuities and jagged narrative.

Even if this atheist cannot quite love the God-fearing D major affirmation of the final scene, as the Celebrant reconnects with his faith, it doesn’t matter. The journey—the process of discovery— counts for more. The haughty certainty of bad religious music is bad religion, worse music. Beethoven’s Credo from his Missa solemnis, Tippett’s A Child of Our Time and Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Requiem for a Young Poet probe the terror of God. Bernstein’s Mass sits in that tradition: make our garden grow—go tell it on the mountain.

Anne Midgette
The Washington Post, August 2009

One of the highlights of Marin Alsop’s tenure at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the exuberant performances of Bernstein’s “Mass” that played in Baltimore, New York and Washington in the fall of 2008, was issued this week on a Naxos CD…Alsop’s recording is certainly the best of the recent crop…Jubilant Sykes, Alsop’s Celebrant…[is] an interesting choice for the role—Alsop had performed the piece with him before, at the Hollywood Bowl—since he’s a singer who combines classical training with gospel…(The Naxos booklet includes a fine essay by my sorely missed late friend and colleague Robert Hilferty, who loved “Mass,” as a child, as much as I did.)…this new “Mass,” which is one of Alsop’s happiest achievements., August 2009

Leonard Bernstein’s Mass has long since transcended its original strong identification with Washington, D.C., and in so doing has also grown beyond its subtitle: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. Bernstein was certainly seeking universality when he wrote this piece on commission from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971. That is why he used the Roman Catholic Tridentine Mass—sung in traditional Latin—as the basis for an emotional exploration of faith, and the challenges to it, in the modern world. In 32 sections that stretch through nearly two hours, Bernstein’s Mass starts in harmony, passes into doubt and uncertainty, climaxes in denial and sacrilege, then slowly rebuilds itself into an affirmation that allows the work to conclude with the traditional, “The Mass is ended; go in peace.” It is a remarkable emotional journey, and baritone Jubilant Sykes, as the Celebrant, goes through it—and takes listeners along—with both emotional fervor and a beautiful, wide-ranging vocal sound. Marin Alsop, a self-professed Bernstein protégé, clearly shares in the emotionalism and strong personal involvement to which this work invites all participants—performers and audience alike. She conducts with fervor and intensity, and the Baltimore Symphony and mostly young choral singers follow her with strength and flexibility, the orchestra’s brass being especially impressive…the fervor with which Alsop approaches many sections, such as the Street Chorus’ questioning of the tenets of the Mass, brings heady excitement to the work, and makes this performance as a whole a highly effective one. It is the second excellent recording of Bernstein’s Mass to be released this year—Kristjan Järvi’s more thoughtful but somewhat less dramatic reading is available on Chandos—and that fact alone, the appearance in so short a time of two recordings so distinguished, confirms that this work has moved well beyond its original standing as an occasional piece.

David Patrick Stearns
The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 2009

Bernstein’s Mass, now recorded on Naxos by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop, will forever be an early-1970s time capsule, but a piece in which the composer was stating his case on spiritual matters so feverishly that he often kept his own melodic effervescence on the sidelines, resulting in music that’s understandably shrill but musically second-rate. But is that less a problem than 30 years ago?...Though the piece always had its champions, detractors parted company with it on such a basic level that revisions wouldn’t have helped. At least it can now be viewed as the product of an era when sacred cows were casually slaughtered as America rebelled against any kind of authority and Pope John XXIII allowed populist innovations such as “guitar masses.”

Bernstein joined the protesters, though since his generation was being rebelled against, he was considered a poser. I don’t believe that. But as a composer, he wanted to matter, even though his musical idiom—applicable both to Broadway and symphonies in ways that made each side suspicious of him—was out of fashion. So if he couldn’t be a musical radical, he would be an ideological one—and he had the conviction to back it up. Maybe too much. Mass probes the nature of belief with all the grace of a battering ram and with such sprawling musical means that even the sympathetic album notes by the late Robert Hilferty describe Mass’ details as “zany” and “goofy.”…How could such a thing be rehabilitated? By performers, namely conductor Alsop and baritone Jubilant Sykes. Neither artist is always brilliant but they are here, thanks to a deep belief that, however recklessly Bernstein expressed himself, the underlying issues are important. Alsop is the voice of solidity and integration. Sykes turns his role into a monologue that’s too personal and vital to seem dated. Paradoxically, the more Sykes achieves dramatic specificity, the more I hear Bernstein himself talking in lines like “I feel like ev’ry psalm that I’ve ever sung turns to wormwood. …And I wonder…was I ever really young?”

Mass will always be a problem piece, but because Bernstein wasn’t prolific and because his influence has burgeoned since his death in 1990, everything he wrote is ripe for positive reexamination.

David Hurwitz, August 2009

Leonard Bernstein’s own version bettered? Yes, indeed! This is, handily, the best sung, best played, most intelligently interpreted recording of Mass currently available. Of course, Bernstein’s rendition always will have sterling qualities, including some wonderful solo singers with really characterful “pop” and Broadway voices, but for its sheer musical integrity combined with the advantage of the composer’s final revisions to the score, this version is unbeatable. Jubilant Sykes, as the Celebrant, easily outclasses Alan Titus’ very fine premiere recording of the role. His voice has more edge; he’s more at ease with the various pop idioms; he sounds radiant at the work’s opening and grows increasingly desperate as it proceeds. This only serves to make his climactic breakdown tragically believable.

The various street singers are, one and all, terrific. “God Said” becomes the work’s comic climax, which is as it should be. “I believe in God”, “Confession”, “World Without End”, and “Thank You” are both idiomatic and beautifully sung. The children’s choir sounds luminous in the Sanctus, while the adult chorus, from Morgan State University, sings with gusto as well as immaculate diction, with every word clearly comprehensible. Marin Alsop knits the whole ensemble together with infallible insight and verve. Her tempos, a bit different from Bernstein’s, quicker here (“God Said”), a touch slower there (the wild dance in the Offertory), are no less right.

It’s all fabulously recorded with a glittering impact that never turns unduly aggressive. The multi-textural layering in the climactic Dona Nobis Pacem comes across as both musically and physically overwhelming. Mass has its detractors, but when performed with this kind of conviction the piece can be inexpressibly moving. Alsop never has made a finer recording—it’s both a tribute to her mentor Leonard Bernstein, as well as to her exceptional talent as an exponent of his music.

Tim Smith
The Baltimore Sun, August 2009

Last fall, Bernstein protégée Marin Alsop led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in performances of this audaciously eclectic “Theatre piece for Singers, Players and Dancers” that generated large, enthusiastic crowds in Baltimore, Washington and New York.

There were glowing notices in most of the press, too, with little of the dismissive attitude that greeted the 1971 premiere of “Mass” at the opening of the Kennedy Center. Today, the genre-crossing ingenuity of Bernstein’s creation seems more impressive than ever. So does the breadth of his vision, the way he fuses the hope, wonder and, yes, theatricality of the Roman Catholic liturgy into a Lenny-style bear hug of universal tolerance and peace…The BSO recording has an electric charge throughout and boasts consistently vivid work from vocal and instrumental forces alike. Above all, there’s the advantage of a strikingly distinctive Celebrant in Jubilant Sykes. The baritone phrases throughout with an immediacy and naturalness that draws the listener into a truly redemptive experience.

He sculpts the pop-idiom passages in disarming fashion, where more opera-centric soloists on the other recordings can sound a little stiff at times. And he achieves mesmerizing intensity in the daunting mad scene, “Things Get Broken,” when the Celebrant undergoes a crisis of faith that stuns and eventually refocuses his congregation. I’m convinced Bernstein would have considered Sykes a godsend (so to speak).

If the baritone gives the performance its soul, Alsop provides abundant heart. She believes totally in this music, and that faith shines in every measure. As is her wont, she keeps things moving along; the recording clocks in at 14 minutes faster than Bernstein’s…but the pacing feels right.

The BSO sounds terrific, producing considerable emotional power in the Meditations. The Morgan State University Choir shines. Members of the “street chorus” make vibrant contributions and, like Sykes, seem perfectly at home stylistically…Boy soprano Asher Edward Wulfman hits some tentative notes, but communicates affectingly. The Peabody Children’s Chorus also does fine work, although I miss the telling sound of a boy choir, which Bernstein intended…Still, Alsop and the BSO provide the more thoroughly persuasive and involving account of this groundbreaking work.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2009

Leonard Bernstein dragged the Roman Catholic liturgy kicking and screaming into the 20th century, and with advances in sound engineering this spectacular new recording can fully exploit the score’s wide dynamic range. It is unquestionably the finest thing that Marin Alsop has yet placed on disc, and it comes with the pedigree of being from a Bernstein protégée.  I went back to my original test pressings I reviewed back in 1971 and found the composer conducting a different view, Alsop giving more emphasis to the sacred aspects. Still I love Bernstein’s cynicism in his recording with its biting use of words and jagged jazz rhythms. It was a stark warning that society could disintegrate, but sadly it has gone unheeded, and maybe this vivid restatement will yank somebody out of the malaise into which we are sliding. To deliver that missive with maximum impact, Bernstein  often pits worldliness against the innocence of the children’s choir, as we hear in the First Introit, where the noisy and banal music interrupts the sounds that appear to come from church choir stalls. The absolutely bizarre aspect of this release comes in a booklet that fails to individually credit the people in the roles of the Soprano, Blues and Rock singers, for you only have to listen to the Confession (disc 1 tracks 10 & 11), and the pivotal moment, ‘I believe in God’ (track 14), to realise that it is their contribution that makes the release very special. In the actor/singer role of the Celebrant we have Jubilant Sykes, a baritone who moves happily between major opera houses and the world of jazz. He throws everything he has into the performance, changing his style to suite the words and situation to perfection. The Morgan State University Choir prove a virile and powerful group, while those singing the Street People are so ideal for the part. Alsop’s choice of tempo is right at every twist and turn, the orchestra, with a host of additional musicians - including electric guitars, ‘rock’ organ and a range of percussion - is full of impact and oozing with virtuosity. A disturbing score but it is imperative you hear and experience it.

Nigel Simeone
International Record Review, July 2009

[Marin Alsop has done her mentor proud…from the start, Alsop conducts with inspiring rhythmic energy…her pacing is superb…the result is not only a welcome opportunity to revisit Mass but also an experience that is both thrilling and moving….This outstanding performance comes  with the benefit of excellent sound…from every point of view, this can be counted a triumphant success.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group