Festival Singers delight with Rossini’s “Little, Solemn Mass”

ROSSINI – Petite Messe solennelle (for soloists, choir, harmonium and two pianos)

Lesley Graham, soprano / Linden Loader, alto / Jonathan Abernethy, tenor / Roger Wilson, bass

Jonathan Berkhan, Louisa Joblin (pianos) / Thomas Gaynor (harmonium)

Rosemary Russell, musical director

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Hill St., Wellington

Saturday 20th November 2010

“Good God—behold completed this poor little Mass—is it indeed sacred music [la musique sacrée] that I have just written, or merely some damned music [la sacré musique]? You know well, I was born for comic opera. Little science, a little heart, that is all. So may you be blessed, and grant me Paradise!”

With these words Gioachino Rossini prefaced his Petite Messe Solennelle, written in 1863, and called elsewhere by the composer the last of his “pêchés de vieillesse” (sins of old age). Characteristically, the music is neither “petite” nor particularly “solemn” – but there’s little doubt as to the work’s sincerity – an expression of faith and piety from one, in his own words, “born for comic opera”.

One of the most engaging aspects of Rossini’s work is its complete lack of sanctimoniousness – nowhere does one sense a feeling, emotion or impulse that doesn’t spring straight from the composer’s essential nature. As with the Stabat Mater, written in 1842, the music unashamedly evokes the theatre in places, an example being the “Domine Deus” section of the Gloria, which featured a ringing, heroic tenor solo reminiscent of the famous “Cujus animam” aria in the earlier work. Tenor Jonathan Abernethy made an excellent fist of this, singing with flair, accuracy and plenty of dynamic and tonal variation – his work featured some lovely high notes in places such as the concluding “Filius Patris”.

Immediately afterwards, soprano Lesley Graham and alto Linden Loader took us to more sombre realms with “Qui tollis peccata mundi”, piano and harmonium setting the scene with piquant and dramatic utterances (great playing from the instrumentalists throughout) leading to further heartfelt sequences such as beautifully essayed chromatic ascents in thirds by the two singers, and a lovely blend by the two at the haunting “Miserere Nobis”, which developed into some positively theatrical Verdian duetting throughout those same words’ final repetitions.

Always one to relish his opportunities, bass Roger Wilson, in resplendent voice, splendidly delivered the “Quoniam”, at once finding the music’s lyricism and energising the sequences up to “Jesu Christe” with the help of Jonathan Berkahn’s vivid, very orchestral piano-playing. With Louisa Joblin on the second piano deliciously bringing extra “galumph” to the accompanying textures, the choral fugue “Cum Sancto Spiritu” sounded simply glorious, director Rosemary Russell characteristically finding a “tempo giusto” which brought out a polka-like “schwung” to the music that even Smetana might have envied.

I hope these descriptions of “flow” throughout just one of the work’s many sequences  will give a sense to readers of the music’s dramatic coursings from episode to episode, with  every impulse the seeming result of the composer’s instinct to speak in a language that comes naturally, with nothing contrived or laid on for a generalised effect. I loved the Britten-like energies of the Credo’s opening, vigorously ascending piano figurations answered by the choir, with the soloists’ contributions dancing in and out among the exchanges. Another treat was the almost Wagnerian “descendit de caelis”, outrageously visceral downwardly-rolling sequences for choir and piano, relished with splendid elan by the performers . By contrast, the “Crucifixus” featured Lesley Graham’s soprano movingly evoking with piano and harmonium something of the awe and pity at Christ’s own suffering in sacrificing his own life for all mankind. Although the second fugue, at “Et vitam” was initially less than tidy between voices and instruments, Rosemary Russell and her sopranos pulled things together, with the cries of “Amen” at the end a grand focal point, before a brief hiatus and final shout of “Credo” ended things triumphantly.

What the sleevenotes of my old LPs refer to as a Prélude réligieux followed, played as a piano solo by Jonathan Berkahn (my recording features the harmonium at this point) – a mesmeric fugal keyboard meditation, beginning and ending with imposing, Beethoven-like chords. In its way, it made a telling prelude to the Sanctus, whose interchanges between soloists and choir had a kinetic energy as well as drama, finely sung, with the men in the choir especially strong. Lesley Graham then made the most of O Salutaris, her equivalent operatic “scene” for soprano, a big-boned and lyrical outpouring, whose mirror image was the contralto solo at Agnus Dei, introduced by portentous piano and harmonium tones, and simply and gravely sung by Linden Loader, balancing dignity with moments of theatrical expression – her cries of “miserere”, supported by lovely chorus work, were truly supplicatory, leaving Jonathan Berkahn to complete Rossini’s piquant piano solo farewell at the end – a wry gesture, entirely characteristic of the composer.

Immense pleasure was to be had from all of this, completing a concert and a year the Festival Singers can, I’m certain, be proud of.

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