Rossini’s “Little Solemn Mass” from the Bach Choir at St.Andrew’s triumphantly reaches towards the stars

The Bach Choir of Wellington presents:
ROSSINI – Petite Messe Solennelle

Nicola Holt (soprano)
Linden Loader (contralto)
John Beaglehole (tenor)
Roger Wilson (bass)

Thomas Nikora (harmonium)
Douglas Mews (piano)

The Bach Choir of Wellington

Shawn Michael Condon (conductor)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Saturday, May 11th , 2019

I was sure I’d heard this work on at least one occasion previously, and more especially once the music had started – from early on in the opening “Kyrie” there were cadences, phrases and sequences that kept on sidling up to me and nudging me in my inner ear’s ribcage as if to say “Oh, you again! – where have you been?” or more cheekily, “Remember me? – ha! you’re stuck, aren’t you?” – and I was “stuck”, indeed, right until the moment I got home afterwards and looked up the Middle C Archive, to confirm that, on November 20th 2010 I had attended a performance of the work at the Hill St. Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, given by the Festival Singers, and directed by Rosemary Russell. What was more, I had actually reviewed it (oh, dear!), with two of the singers in this afternoon’s performance (Linden Loader and Roger Wilson) also having taken part in that earlier presentation. I’m happy to say that, as per the review I enjoyed the performance enormously!

Apart from my lamentable lack of specific recall, I was pleased I had sufficient juice in my memory-bank to be able to make this previous connection, and then, of course, confirm it with renewed pleasure through hearing the work again. Almost ten years after that first encounter my delight in the music remains undiminished – if anything I was even more taken aback this time round by the composer’s unashamed (and uncontrived) boldness in evoking a musical style more readily associated with the theatre than with a church for a work purporting to be a religious statement, and by the elan with which he brought it off. The swaggering rhythms and heroic vocal manner with which the performers here put across the “Domine Deus” section of the “Gloria” added a further dimension to the depth of feeling built up by the opening “Kyrie” and “Christe” sections to the music, each sequence beautifully shaped by conductor Shawn Michael Condon and delivered with a steadiness and luminosity of tone that did the choristers proud.

Each succeeding section of the work here unfailingly conveyed its special character – both piano and harmonium trumpeted and rolled out their excited, jubilant chords and flourishes at the opening of the “Gloria” in a way that suitably galvanised the voices, leaving us in no doubt of the composer’s desire to acknowledge the Almighty with sounds that reflected His glory. The soloists added resplendent tones to their individual strands, beginning with Roger Wilson’s imposing bass delivery of  “Et in terra pax….” then joined by the others over the “Laudamus te” sections, the soprano leaving the remaining trio with the emphatic, oft-repeated reiterations of “propter magnum gloriam tuam” (for Your great glory), Douglas Mews’ piano conjuring both Lisztian sparkle in the flourishes, and poetic serenity in the quieter concluding measures. After tenor John Beaglehole had thrilled us with the energies and high-wire accomplishments of his “Domine Deus” solos we were brought back to our “vale of tears” by soprano Nicola Holt and contralto Linden Loader in “Qui tollis peccata mundi”,  piquant and heartfelt instrumental tones setting the scene for beautifully expressed vicalisings,  both individually and in concerted blendings in places such as the repeated “Miserere nobis” as the sequence came to its end.

Harmonium player Thomas Nikora sensitively coaxed some plaintive modulations from his instrument , bridging the way to the piano’s building up the rhythmic excitement for Roger Wilson’s assertive “Quoniam”, big-boned and heroic, Rossini making something of a meal of this part of the work (perhaps wanting to curry plenty of favour with the Almighty), complete with its Beethovenian-like accompaniment! After a whimsical piano transition, some great, orchestra-like chords from piano and harmonium brought in the choir for “Cum Sancto Spiritu”, first the gleaming-toned sopranos, and then the rest of the choir, a moment whose magnificence was then somewhat disconcertingly energised by the sopranos’ polka-like rhythmic gait which began the fugue, put across by all the musicians with a delicious sense of fun, complete with long, discursively sinuous “Amen” lines that concluded with a reprise of “Gloria in excelsis Deo” and with the “Amens” appearing more assertively and vigorously  than before!

After an interval, the Credo returned us to the fray, amid instrumental flourishes and great cries of “Credo” from the choir, the music settling down to a flow with the soloists joining in, and the choir occasionally reminding us that this was, in fact, a statement of faith, by reiterating the word “Credo”. The soloists wove their lines into and through the momentums of the texture, conductor Shawn Michael Condon allowing the musical fabric to billow out splendidly in places, but keeping an all-important sense of forward motion, right through to the sudden self-consiousness of the words “et homo factus est”.

Soprano Nicola Holt gave us a long-breathed, beautifully-coloured, by turns anguished and inward “Crucifixus”, securely nailing those fiendish entries at the word “passus” with great aplomb, and conveying so very movingly the sorrow and resignation of the message throughout. The choir launched themselves whole-heartedly into the “Resurrexit”, before alternating with the soloists throughout the beautiful “Et ascendit in caelum” and the more vigorous “Et viterum venturis” and “Et in Spiritum Sanctum” sections, during which it was a pleasure to register the strong focus of the male sections of the choir.

With piano and harmonium returning to the “Et ascendit in caelum” figurations the choir and soloists began “Et unam, sanctam, catholicam”, the choir dominating with their cries of “Confiteor”, racing expectantly towards the “Ex expecto resurrectionem” passages with a sense of great and proper conviction, before plunging into the fugal “Et vitam venturi saeculi” at an exhilarating lick! The choir splendidly took us with them as the music surged unstoppably through the “Amens”, allowing a brief hiatus of murmuring rapture from the voices and instruments before concluding with a final all-affirming shout of “Credo”.

At this point, Rossini inserted a “Prelude Religieux and Ritournelle pour le Sanctus” which, to my ears was played by Douglas Mews, with nary a contribution from Thomas Nikora’s harmonium (throughout I found the harmonium hard to hear in any case as I was sitting over to the right and the instrument was on the platform’s left – and I couldn’t see the player to be able at times to “register” any physical movement)……none of this detracted from Mews’ playing of this very Lisztian episode, the sounds filled with fantasy and fancy. The harmonium did take up the argument just before the voices instigated the Sanctus, the opening beautifully “sounded” by the choir, and “answered” in radiant, declamatory fashion by the soloists. Rossini rang the changes throughout regarding both voices (choir and soloists) and music –  the unfolding of the whole, with its unpredictable juxtapositionings of the different voice-qualities had an almost improvisatory air which enchanted and compelled one’s attention at all times.

Affecting, too, from the very beginning, was the concluding “Agnus Dei”, the piano playing a quixotic Grieg-like opening figure, followed by what sounded almost like an indolent gondola song, over which the contralto, Linden Loader, intoned the famous prayer with every word clearly-focused and precisely-weighted, and the piano/harmonium combination at once remorseless in rhythm and affecting in timbre. The choir’s responses to the soloist in places sounded almost like voices from another world – it seemed to me that the singing beautifully “contoured” the music’s emotional intensities, while the choir’s responses were almost to die for – and what a “frisson” of emotion was unleashed when the voices joined forces for a reprise of  “qui tollis peccata mundi” – as powerful emotionally, I thought, if on a smaller physical scale, as the cataclysmic concluding moments of the “Libera Me” of Rossini’s countryman Giuseppe Verdi, in his “Requiem” – even if the latter, by all accounts wouldn’t thank me for daring to suggest such a thing!


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