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CD Button Vortmann; Philadelphia Orchestra, Nézet-Séguin; various chorales, J. Miller. Deutsche Grammophon DG 483 5009

Recordings Mass Cover 918
Critics Choice Button 1015

IT MAY SEEM ODD that a new recording of an old piece represents the work better than a recording conducted by the composer himself. But just about everything in the world has changed since Leonard Bernstein’s Mass was first heard at the opening night of the Kennedy Center in 1971, so there’s no reason our assessment of Mass, and our idea of how it should be performed, shouldn’t change too. Moreover, Bernstein’s Mass, a piece from his everything-plus-the–kitchen-sink school of composition, is one of the reasons so many things changed in the first place.

Today, there are classically trained young singers who go to Broadway or the Met but might as easily have gone to the other, and there are singers who work in both places. By sound alone, Kevin Vortmann, who sings the enormous role of the Celebrant in this new recording conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, would seem (by his impeccable vowels and diction, classically supported tone and fastidious attention to the markings in the score) to be a classical performer who has learned pop style. But he comes to Mass mostly from the Broadway side. Vortmann gives a musician’s account of the role, the sort of performance that makes the Epistle section sound like a better piece of music than it is. And there are several other members of the cast who similarly bring everything to their parts. The baritone Nathaniel Stampley offers a direct reading of both the spirit and the letter of “Non credo,” and Bryonha Marie Parham, with an appropriately dirty interpretation of “Easy,” gives the number just what it needs. Above all, the several choirs, admirably prepared by Joe Miller, offer the necessary detail and enthusiasm.

The chorus on Bernstein’s original recording wasn’t quite a professional ensemble. There was a rough-and-ready chaos to the solo singing, and the orchestra wasn’t billed by name. The stylistically correct performance practice for Mass seems to be to throw everything you’ve got at it and see what sticks. (The day after Bernstein’s final concert as music director of the New York Philharmonic, he worked on a proposed project about St. Francis of Assisi with Franco Zeffirelli, went to a Jimi Hendrix concert and then flew to Vienna to conduct Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis; one of St. Francis’s tunes became the “Simple Song” from Mass.) So perhaps it’s inappropriate that Nézet-Séguin’s conducting makes Mass appear strong and organized. But he’s convincing. He constructs the work as three large paragraphs: the first twelve movements form a single arch, leading to the first Meditation; the ensuing middle movements reveal surprising bitterness beneath their surface sheen; and the final third depicts the Celebrant’s getting swept away by something deeper, grander and more ancient than he anticipated. Nézet-Séguin also elevates the piece in smaller ways, such as a more amiable and less driven version of the Gloria than Bernstein’s. 

During the reevaluation of Bernstein’s compositions in this centennial year, Mass’s stock seems to be rising. This new recording shows why.  —William R. Braun

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