BBC Proms reviews

Prom 32: Bernstein: Mass @ Royal Albert Hall, London

6 August 2012

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

Leonard Bernstein’s Mass is one of a kind, a highly unique and personal exploration of the tensions that lie at the heart of an individual and his faith — the individual in this case being the composer, of course. It is a blend of the sacred and secular that continues to split opinion among those who witness it, never failing to provoke a reaction.

This was the first Proms performance of Mass since its 1971 composition, and was overseen by Kristjan Järvi, who has familiarity with the work as well as a 2006 recording for Chandos under his belt. He led a mass of eleven Welsh choirs and orchestras, who were urged on by some enthusiastic flag wavers from the stalls, and a group of twenty students, past and present, from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. These were the Street People, the secular ‘doubters’.

The sheer size of forces involved was apparent when all were responding “and it was good, brother” in response to Ronald Samm’s celebrations as the exuberant Preacher. Järvi swayed with these moments of power but also brought out moments of unexpected delicacy and warmth. The first of the three Meditations within the piece was particularly moving under leader Lesley Hatfield’s watchful guidance, while ‘A Simple Song’ was quietly stoical, the early part of Mass basking in a sacred contentment as the Celebrant (Morten Frank Laursen) was introduced. His was a performance that did not find the vocal penetration of previous incumbents, or the extent of the loss of mind that grows from within as the Street People plant their doubts. This group were truly excellent, throwing themselves around with relish as if they were the cast of Grease dancing in church, their vocals interjecting with power, precision and strong personality.

Balance in a work such as this presents a tremendous headache but the Royal Albert Hall proved a worthy setting, with amplification was sensibly used, even down to the organ. Only the rock band could have been louder, with guitar, bass and drums all back in the mix. Järvi forced his audience to question, to consider the conflicts at work in the libretto, though these did occasionally date the piece in their occasionally ham fisted methods of delivery. The performance moved from the carnival atmosphere of the opening, jubilant exchanges, where a thrilling heft was brought to the combination of orchestra and organ, to the sparse tension of ‘Fraction’, the Celebrant’s spiritual breakdown laid bare.

The choral singing was superb, clear as glass in the De profundis, while the children’s choirs were utterly charming as they danced in their seats to the composer’s direction in the Offertory. The sheer power of this section carried over to the audience, who began to clap with every beat. Proof, then, that while Mass remains a spiritual and musical conundrum that few can fully understand, it still has the power to secure a reaction. This performance did just that.

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