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A masterwork dedicated to John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Dona nobis pacem – Peace and Love!
Woodstock, Nixon and the Vietnam War were undoubtedly underlying influences on the increasingly oppressive dramaturgy of this incredible ‘Theatre Piece' composed in memory of J. F. Kennedy. ‘What's a Jewish boy like you doing writing a Mass?', Bernstein was asked at the premiere in September 1971. Perhaps the answer lies with the ‘Celebrant', the central figure in this work originally performed by 200 singers, instrumentalists and dancers, a piece at the crossroads between religions – and at the stylistic crossroads between classical, jazz, folk, blues, and rock – which today is still as relevant as ever.This title was released for the first time in 2004.
“This controversial music-theatre piece is spruced up by the clean sound of this disc but lacks the compelling quality of the composer's own version.” BBC Music Magazine, Christmas 2012 ***
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When Leonard Bernstein was asked by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to compose the inaugural piece for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D. C., he wrote ‘The Mass is also an extremely dramatic event in itself—it even suggests a theater work’.
Premièred on 8 September 1971, with additional words by Stephen Schwartz of Godspell fame, Mass is a remarkable visionary piece with a kaleidoscope of musical styles that touches on themes of political protest, existential crisis, and religious faith lost and found.
“…is a virtual triumph from beginning to end, and the only recording for me worthy of sitting next to the composer's own. …Alsop's tight-knit, symphonic pacing delineates the structure of the work without diluting its exuberant eclecticism or softening its hard road towards spiritual reawakening: the final Communion is among the most moving passages ever recorded. She is no slouch, too, when it comes to that elusive Bernstein groove; if you aren't dancing around the room during the Gloria in Excelsis, you haven't got a soul to save, my friend!” BBC Music Magazine, September 2009 *****
“…Alsop's Jubilant Sykes is the best of all possible Celebrants. 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. Just as the Celebrant flips comes the most remarkable passage of all - a funky 10-bar refrain of "Dona nobis pacem"... Alsop ensure this passage pushes the Celebrant over the top... the orchestral playing too, here and throughout, is lusty and unafraid to let go.” Gramophone Magazine, September 2009
“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 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.
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. He must disentangle music of gnarly complexity; he needs an operatic sensibility, but must also swing like a hipster jazzer and declaim with authentic rockist swank. Sykes's 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.
He was born to play this part.
Although she doesn't drive things quite as far as Bernstein, Alsop is pacey, creating a dramatic slipstream that is powered relentlessly onwards by the awkward discontinuities and jagged narrative.
Even if the atheist cannot quite love the God-fearing D major affirmation of the final scene, it doesn't matter. The journey, the process of discovery, counts for more.” Gramophone Classical Music Guide, 2010
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Randall Scarlata (baritone)
Celebrant Absolute Ensemble, Chorus sine nomine, Company of Music, Tölzer Knabenchor & Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich, Kristjan Järvi
Chandos Disc of the Month – 2-CD set at mid-price
‘He was a great individual, totally unafraid to take risks and largely misunderstood because people didn’t see his universality,’ Kristjan Jarvi on Leonard Bernstein.
One of his most controversial compositions, Bernstein’s Mass was written at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy Onnassis for the opening of the John F.Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC and received its gala premiere at the venue’s opening on 8 September 1971. Bernstein declared that his intention in writing the piece had been ‘to communicate as directly and universally as I can a reaffirmation of faith.’ Recalling Britten’s War Requiem in its use of Catholic liturgical text interrupted with commentary, the work caused a storm of controversy particularly with its exploration of the concerns of the era – Nixon and Vietnam. Unlike Britten, however, as with many of his compositions, Bernstein brought together an embarrassment of riches of musical styles both classical and popular music at the start of the 1970s. The New York Times notes, ‘Bernstein left nothing of himself out of Mass, and like the man who wrote it, the piece demands to be noticed… beneath the original dramatic conception, the creative exuberance, the showbiz glitter and the ear-catching set numbers is a sophisticated, carefully controlled piece of musical craftsmanship that repays close scrutiny… an extravagant, exuberant and endlessly inventive creation…’ Mass is now recognised as one of the central works of Twentieth Century American music, and its political and cultural importance as well as amazing music extends its relevance to today.
The Times wrote of a recent performance by Kristjan Jarvi and the Tonkunstler Orchestra. ‘The conductor Kristjan Jarvi is bringing a bracing blast of Bernstein.’ Der Standard noted ‘… There has not been this much drama for a long time... conductor Kristjan Jarvi, together with his his Absolute Ensemble New York, the Tonkunstler Orchestra, Chorus sine nomine, Company of music and the Tolzer Boys’ Choir, presents the theme of modern man’s crisis of faith…’ ‘Kristjan Jarvi proves himself a perfect strategist with a real feeling for Bernstein’s tonal dramatisation. He creates a monumental theatre of sound …’ Kronen Zeitung.
Leading Baritone Randall Scarlata takes the role of the celebrant, a role he has performed on many occasions. He is especially recognised for his performances of American repertoire. The Boston Globe recently commented, ‘A triumph – this baritone has in his keeping the vocal wherewithal to do just about anything he wants.’
“Kristjan Järvi directs his forces efficiently but his no-nonsense approach diminishes the work's endearing stylistic and emotional sprawl. …overall the feeling is that of a work being acted, rather than lived through, particularly with Randall Scarlata's over-emphatic Celebrant.” BBC Music Magazine, March 2009 ***
“…Järvi and his celebrant Randall Scarlata are profoundly uninhibited are the instrumental playing - whether evoking Sousa, edgy rock or free jazz-like liberation - is proudly physical, and locks into whichever idiom Bernstein demands in the moment with horse-sure certainty.” Gramophone Magazine, May 2009
“It's a tour de force for conductor Kristjan Järvi, who, in addition to marshalling the enormous forces required - three choirs, two orchestras, soloists and a rock band - takes a speaking role as one of the cynics hounding Randall Scarlata's volatile Celebrant. Engineered over a colossal dynamic range, the sound is sensational.” The Guardian, 13th March 2009 ****
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