When I was a 6th former, my music teacher [whose opinions I usually highly valued at the time] used to talk of this piece in the most scornful of terms, ridiculing anyone who might want to analyse it in any conventional academic way.
Because of this prejudice, it took me a long time to get round to listening to it. Over the years I have got to know Bernstein's art as a conductor and composer [I have yet to read enough of his writings]. My prejudiced view was that he was a conductor of superficial talent who went for glossy effect and a populist composer. I have come to appreciate Bernstein as a conductor very well [I have favourably reviewed a number of his recordings on Amazon] and have appreciated him as someone who conveys a real magnetism in his interpretations of music. I have really also come to enjoy many of his compositions. As well as the obvious pleasures of West Side Story and Chichester Psalms, I have greatly enjoyed Candide, On the Town, Trouble in Tahiti and his Age of Anxiety symphony. These works have displayed a glorious eclectic gift and makes me revel in Bernstein as the heir of Charles Ives and Aaron Copland, composers who have absorbed European musical models but have also been open to the breadth of the melting pot of American influences.
So what of Mass? I am not sure that listening to the work alone can fully convey what the work is about. It is a theatrical work which uses the Roman Catholic latin mass but brings a 1970s contemporary twist as street singers interpose [and interrupt] the rite with their own concerns. At the climax of the work [the Agnus Dei], the celebrant is confronted with a chorus of Dona Nobis Pacem sung, not as a prayer for peace but as an angry demand for it [this was written at the time of the Vietnam war, which was having a major effect on American culture and discourse at the time] and commits the blasphemous act of throwing down and shattering the chalice. There follows a truly crazed aria in which the celebrant incoherantly reflects on what has happened. The music takes in abstractions of the musical material already used and ruminates on the latin words of the mass distorting the sounds to english ones.
The music of Mass is very eclectic. You can namecheck Mahler and Copland as two more serious composer influences and these moments can be sublimely beautiful. There are also many of the Broadway Musical effects that Bernstein used so effectively in West Side Story and Candide. The vocal music of the Celebrant reminded me of Bernstein's work in his opera Trouble in Tahiti. However, I would add that the work also brings in more contemporary genres of rock into the music. So the music can be seen as a bit of a hodgepodge of different styles and arguably far too many for the work to be taken seriously as a composition. The problem of using contemporary rock idioms is that it very quickly sounds dated. I will leave others to decide; I personally found it rather moving and exhilerating in terms.
What of the performance? This was Bernstein's own recording of the work made in 1971 and for many years this was the only recording available. I have yet to hear the recordings of Marin Alsop, Kristjan Jarvi and Kent Nagano but on this showing I am happy with what I hear of Bernstein himself. The recording comes up very nicely and I have no issues with the sound quality at all. I also think it a very fine performance. Alan Titus as a the Celebrant was only 26 at the time and his voice had not fully developed; it lacked some of the opennes and power that it has since developed. However, it is a young man's part and perhaps would not suit him now. All the other singers and musicians do a brilliant job.