Excellent performance by Nota Bene of Rossini’s marvellous Petite Messe solennelle

Petite Messe solennelle by Rossini
Nota Bene conducted by Peter Walls

Soloists: Georgia Jamieson Emms, Maaike Christie-Beekman, Patrick Geddes, Simon Christie
Piano: Fiona McCabe; harmonium: Thomas Nikora

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Saturday 9 July, 8 pm

Rossini’s end-of-life setting of the Mass has a somewhat special place in the repertoire – secular or sacred? serious or ironic? Thus, some more humourless music lovers have difficulty in enjoying it as some of the music is a bit unusual in tone, remote from the way a ‘proper’ sacred or liturgical work should be.

I think it would be hard to perform it in a way that suggested any lack of sincerity or seriousness however. For a work on this scale and in the knowledge that it was his last composition, it would be a remarkably shallow, not to say stupid, composer who would have devoted so many of his last days to something that was not a little bit important to him. It was clearly important to him both as music and as an expression of his Christian faith.

In any case, Rossini’s well-known words in his last rites, asking God to bear in mind his Stabat Mater and this mass setting as evidence of his faith, are rather persuasive.

For the audience, seated in the front of the nave, the sound was uncluttered and diction clear. A spirit of delight reigned from the very first staccato motif on the piano which in this performance sounded distinctly more brilliant and life-affirming than some performances with orchestra I’ve heard. They might succeed in creating a more liturgical, more grand atmosphere, but not so special. As it progresses the tone does become more serious, as at the ‘Et Resurrexit’, for example, which climbs to a distinctly more triumphant tone in keeping with its subject.

One of the most distinctive, and perhaps unorthodox aspects, is the accompaniment by piano, and by a piano part in which one can easily hear Rossini himself playing (for he was a splendid pianist).

Rossini originally scored it for two pianos and a harmonium but a couple of years later, he orchestrated it, knowing that if he didn’t others would; that too shows how well he regarded his late masterpiece. Here we had only one piano and a harmonium though the harmonium, played by Thomas Nikora, on the right was generally not very audible to me, sitting on the left.

Fiona McCabe did a wonderful job in the composer’s possible role (we know that he only acted as page turner for the first piano at its first performance). It succeeded in being brilliant, witty, marvellously adapted to its role as support for the singers whether a solo or the full choir. The piano lent the entire work a singularity of tone and spirituality, an ever-present lightness and ebullience, bringing a remarkable immediacy to its spiritual qualities. In fact, I suspect for most listeners the piano is one of its most engaging and individual characteristics throughout, nowhere more conspicuously than in the ‘Credo’ where its colour and clarity gave it something that a big orchestra couldn’t really equal.

Rossini apparently intended it to be sung by just eight choir members and four soloists; there were 23 choristers at this performance, plus the four soloists, which was fully justified here, as the premiere was in a private mansion in Paris where small forces would have been enough.

A memorable hearing
It was certainly the piano sound that made an impact at my first live hearing which I will plead forgiveness for reminiscing on. In Paris in 1992, after I’d spent a week with the NZSO at the Seville EXPO, I ran into the late Gary Brain (former NZSO timpanist and after a wrist injury, an orchestral conductor in Europe) in a street near the New Zealand Embassy. He was full of excitement, about to go to his first professional conducting engagement after his studies in Paris; would I like to come? Where? At a small festival at St-Florent-le-Vieil on the Loire, between Angers and Nantes.

I took the train down there next morning, found at the first hotel out of the railway station and across the river, that Gary had booked me a room; then I found my way to the small church where the festival was held. The church was full (about 300) that evening for Gary’s performance of the Petite messe solennelle, with the choir and four soloists from the Opéra-Comique in Paris, with a piano and a harmonium (memory a little uncertain – maybe two pianos). I think it was a very good performance, in my memory very much like what I heard on Saturday evening.

Next evening, back in Paris, I dictated a purple-prosed review to the nice copy-taker in The Evening Post where it was printed next day.

In such a setting, and witnessing Gary’s professional debut, the music had a very special significance and excitement. Any new performance brings up enchanting memories of that one on the Loire.

Composers of mass settings often vary the divisions between the sections, and Rossini divides his into 14. There is no separate section for the ‘Benedictus’, for example, which simply flows as part of the ‘Sanctus’.

The mass has attracted composers over the centuries for the varied, dramatic possibilities offered by its summary of Christian ritual and stories, in its varied purposes; Rossini identified the possibilities for engaging with a secular audience as much as with a religious congregation. And Peter Walls inspired the choir to find as much entertainment and religious feeling too, from the words and from the character of the music at every stage.

The soloists
We heard all four in the ‘Kyrie’ and the ‘Gloria’, some a cappella moments in the ‘Kyrie’ offering a taste of their excellent balance and verbal clarity. The first soloist to stand out was Simon Christie, in the ‘Gloria’, wonderfully robust and strongly projecting as it was later in the ‘Quoniam’ where again he shone with his steady descents below the stave, with an operatic, dotted rhythm; elsewhere his voice had an imposing prominence that was never out of place.

Tenor Patrick Geddes had his solo turn in the ‘Domine Deus’, and on his own his pleasant voice created a feeling of enjoyment that quite overcame a touch of insecurity.

After a charming piano introduction, the two women sang unaccompanied in the ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’, most excellently, as one after the other caught a penitential note; but not for long, as there is also a distinctly lyrical, operatic quality. Each also had her place in the sun elsewhere: Georgia in the ‘Crucifixus’ where her voice soared with a sort of happiness that might seem out of keeping with the marking of Christ’s crucifixion. Maaike had solo moments with two other soloists in the ‘Gratias’; the warmth and polish of her voice was most engaging. But her big solo came in the ‘Agnus Dei’ where she used her voice movingly, weaving around the voices of the choir.

Four soloists from the choir sang at certain points, notably in the ‘Credo’, where the ecstatic quality of ‘Cum spirit sanctu’ suddenly changes to something serious, a statement of belief. They reappeared in the ‘Sanctus’, where a more sombre tone is also required.

The centre point of the mass might well be the ‘Cum sancto spiritu’ and here I can be forgiven for thinking that its tremendous youthful verve and melodic glory, striking with piano, actually does sound even more impressive and thrilling with orchestral accompaniment. Nevertheless, Peter Walls’s vigorous gestures here helped create a rising excitement, ending with the ecstatic ‘Gloria in excelsis’.

Just about everything in this performance of a marvelous work was admirably judged and accomplished, once more demonstrating the choir’s musical gifts, as well as the apparently happy relationship with Peter Walls who took over the choir at the end of last year.

The audience, not quite as big as the performance deserved, was highly appreciative.

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