Laughter in Paradise: Petite Messe Solennelle

ItalyItaly. Henze, Ouverture zu einem Theater (2012); Rossini, Petite Messe Solennelle. Chorus and Orchestra dell’ Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Conductor, Sir Antonio Pappano. Chorus Master, Ciro Visco. Marina Rebeka (soprano), Sara Mingardo (contralto), Francesco Meli (tenor), Alex Esposito (bass). Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome. 10.11.2012 (JB)

Petite Messe Solennelle is neither Petite (it plays at just under ninety minutes) nor a Mass (unless you are intoxicated by shop-window dressing; but more of that in a minute) nor Solennelle (for the composer cannot keep a straight face for more than the maximum stretch of six bars). Rossini was all things to all men; he had a real knack for shop-window dressing, but what transformed the knack into genius was how his window-dressing would turn out to conceal what he’d got in the shop: last laugh on you, dear Gioacchino. Surprise and delight at every turn. Shocking mischief, but O what fun!

And before you threaten to have Rossini charged for default of the Trade Descriptions Act, you should know that the composer called for the first performance in 1864 –at the inauguration of a private chapel in the opulent house of his friend, Countess Louise Pillet-Vill, to be performed by twelve singers only, four of whom would sing the demanding soloist roles, accompanied by two pianos and a harmonium: Petite indeed, you will agree. Harry Christophers could do worse than give us a performance with his cut-to-size, supreme group, The Sixteen.

However, Rossini seems to have realised what a little jewel he had produced, and set to work rescoring it for full orchestra, not wanting to leave that rewriting to another hand, as he confined to more than one friend. He never heard this “big” version. It received its premiere three months after his death. Both autograph scores are with the Fondazione Rossini in Pesaro. And Santa Cecilia performed the orchestral version, which was new to me.

For many critics,, wit cannot not lie well with religious belief. But for Rossini it did. Asking Rossini to give up his wit is asking him to cease to compose. And asking him to give up his religious belief is asking him to give up his wit. Remember Meister Eckhart’s comment on some misdemeanour which I don’t just recall: It was God himself having a bit of fun. In addition to the dedication to the Countess Louise, Rossini also dedicated the PMS to his Maker: Well, dear God, here it is, finished at last, my Little Solemn Mass. Is it really sacred music or just more of the same damned stuff? I was born for comic opera as You know. No skill needed there, just a sense of style, that’s the long and short of it. So Glory to God, and please grant me Paradise. G. Rossini .Passy 1863.

Rather touching, this little prayer-plea. Of Santa Cecilia’s quartet of soloists, Sara Mingardo alone had the right voice. Her Angus Dei was memorable: hers is one of the rare, real contralto voices in today’s scene and such is the humble conviction of her plea, you cannot imagine the Maker not lending a sympathetic ear. The other three soloists seemed not to know that the Maker will not be bossed around. All three –Marina Rebeka (soprano), Francesco Meli (tenor) and Alex Esposito (bass) have voices which are too “important” (or was that a veneer of self-importance they were wearing?), too operatic and too insistent on trying to make an effect, though it is never clear which effect(s) they are striving for. But striving they unmistakably are.

Marina Rebeka (soprano) brought a lot of vocal strain to the Crucifixus where no strain is called for. Francesco Meli (tenor) has a pleasant enough voice and even let us hear some of it in the Domine Deus. But both he and Alex Esposito (bass) were doing everything to try to convince us that the composer was Puccini. Needless to say, this is as far as you can get away from Rossini’s subtle writing.

Fortunately the PMS is predominantly a choral work and Ciro Visco waved his magic wand over the Accademia’s supreme chorus. Everything was sheer perfection: diction, dynamic colourings, intonation, rhythmic incisiveness and cleanness of attack. The unaccompanied singing –especially in the Cristie eleison- was moving. And like any supreme workforce they made the remarkable ethereal effect sound easy.

As you would expect the full orchestral version gains in sonority. But is that an advantage with this music? On balance, I doubt it. The PMS is predominantly a prayer which is whispered to its hearers; it was only the fear of the likes of a Salvation Army Bandmaster making an arrangement, that Rossini himself blocked such an enterprise by writing his own and then forbidding it to be played in his lifetime. I have my own doubts as to whether it should be performed at all in our times.

But if you are going to have the full band, Sir Antonio Pappano is certainly the right person to conduct it. He is meticulously respectful of Rossini’s demanding phrasing: there are many parts where the players are required to think across rests which occur, not at the end of phrases, but as parts of their Rossiniana structure., in the midst of a musical sentence. All of this was most neatly and musically attended to.

In the first version the Offertory is given over to the harmonium or piano. Here it is taken on by the organ. I don’t know if this was the choice of stops of the organist, Daniele Rossi, but this section came out with that unpleasant pinkish, nasal sound, associated in my mind with the cinema Hammond organs of the forties. This was the first time I was aware of hearing the organ in the Santa Cecilia Hall. On this showing, it is not an experience I would choose to repeat.

At the beginning of the concert, Sir Antonio reminded the audience that on 27 October the great German composer, Hans Werner Henze had died. Maestro Henze had lived at Marino, in the wine-growing hills, just outside Rome, since the fifties. I can vouch for the excellence of the red wine which was made on his estate. That was well matched by the excellence of the lunch, most of which came out of the garden. Like me, Hans didn’t eat meat. Although he suffered from bouts of depression, he continued to the end to enjoy many of the good things of life. He was the perfect host. We shall all sorely miss him.

There was usually something to be learned from a visit to Marino. Conveniently, I cannot recall the name of the composer or the piece we were discussing when I suggested that some of this composer’s writing sounded fraudulent. That’s right, he shot back, all music which is being written today is a question of knowing how to be successfully fraudulent. And there is a remark which takes us right back to Gioacchino Rossini. So it was fitting that the Accademia paid their respects to Hans Henze with his last piece, Overture for a Theatre, written for the centenary of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, and just performed there. And the piece is Petite ( it lasts only five minutes) a Messe (a real celebration of the good things of life: even a few bars of a Viennese waltz get shoved in) and Solonnelle (it works up to the most almighty crash at the end). Laughter in Paradise. Rossini would have hugged him.

Jack Buckley