United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (11) – Rossini: Mary Pope (soprano); Olivia Ray (mezzo-soprano); Mark Wilde (tenor); Timothy Nelson (baritone); Steven Kings & Christopher Allsop (piano); Peter Dyke (harmonium); Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir/Geraint Bowen (conductor), Gloucester Cathedral, 29.7. 2016. (JQ)
Rossini – Petite messe solennelle
‘Dear Lord, here it is finished, this poor little mass. Have I just written sacred music, or rather, sacrilegious music? I was born for opera buffa, as you well know. Not much technique, a little bit of heart, that’s all. Blessings to you and grant me Paradise.’
Those were the self-deprecating words that Rossini inscribed at the end of the score of his Petite messe solennelle.
The first thing to be said about Rossini’s Mass setting is that it is neither ‘petite’ nor particularly ‘solennelle’. In fact it lasts for some 80 minutes in performance but the description ‘petite’ probably refers to the forces specified for the first performance. As for the use of the word ‘solennelle’, that’s deliberate in order to distinguish the setting from a Messe basse.
The Mass was written in 1863, five years before the composer’s death, for the consecration of the private chapel of an aristocratic Parisian friend of Rossini. For the first performance he specified a vocal ensemble of just twelve singers, including the four soloists, accompanied by two pianos and harmonium. In fact I think I’m correct in saying that there were only two performances of the Mass during the composer’s lifetime, both of which were given in private. Rossini made an orchestral version of the piece but this was not performed until after his death.
There’s much to be said for both versions of the score. The orchestral version is, naturally, more colourful and you need a bigger choir to balance the orchestra; thus it becomes a much more ‘public’ work. The original version gives the piece an intimate feel. It was the original version which we heard this morning, performed by a choir of approximately 50 young singers, soloists, pianos and harmonium.
I liked all four soloists. Mary Pope was billed as a soprano and the leading roles mentioned in her biography are indeed soprano parts but her voice sounded to me to be verging towards mezzo which, in many respects, is what this part requires. I enjoyed the richness of her tone in the often low-lying ‘Crucifixus’ and she sang the ‘O salutaris’ with fine expression. This is a text not included in the Ordinary of the Mass but inserted by Rossini, presumably as a Communion motet. Earlier in the performance Miss Pope’s voice was very well matched with Olivia Ray in their duet ‘Qui tollis’. My only reservation about Mary Pope’s performance was a tendency to spread high notes.
I heard Olivia Ray earlier this year in a performance of Elgar’s The Apostles here in Gloucester. I liked the sound of her voice then and it was a pleasure to hear her again today. She sang very well in ‘Qui tollis’ and elsewhere contributed very effectively to the quartet. The mezzo’s big moment comes in the ‘Agnus Dei’, a very demanding movement. Miss Ray sang her solo passages in this movement with warm, round tone and a marked degree of commitment building, along with the choir, to an impassioned plea ‘Dona nobis pacem’.
Mark Wilde was the stylish tenor. I especially appreciated the ringing tone and open-throated Italianate style that he brought to ‘Domine Deus’. This may not be quite as challenging an aria as the tenor solo in Rossini’s Stabat Mater – no top D flats for a start – but it’s still a challenging solo and a long one. Wilde did very well indeed and I liked very much his sensitive dynamics in the central section of the aria. These aren’t actually marked in my edition of the vocal score but, my goodness, they’re needed if the aria is not to sound “can belto” – Mr Wilde’s rendition was anything but that. Timothy Nelson also impressed me. His baritone is firm, clear and well focused. Like his colleagues he was stylish and he sang his ‘Quoniam’ solo with authority and finesse. Again, dynamic contrasts, puzzlingly absent from the Ricordi vocal score, were well in evidence in this solo and Nelson’s easy top notes were admirable.
The Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir only assembled as a group on Monday and they had just four days of intensive rehearsals in which to prepare this performance. They can be proud of their achievement. Throughout the performance the young singers produced a fresh, appealing sound – the bright tone of the sopranos especially caught my ear. They were extremely attentive to matters of detail – in the unaccompanied ‘Christe eleison’, for instance. They attacked the opening of the ‘Gloria’ with confidence and the jolly fugue on ’Cum Sancto Spiritu’ was sung with great spirit. In this fugue they evidenced the care with which the performance had been prepared by being most attentive to the dynamic markings – another instance where the “can belto” trap was neatly avoided. There was excellent energy at the start of the ‘Credo’ while ‘Et resurrexit’ was very assured. There’s another long fugue in this movement and I admired the young singers’ vitality and attention to dynamics.
The performance was accompanied by pianos and harmonium. The second piano part is essentially a ripieno part, reinforcing the primo part at key points. The main pianistic burden fell on Steven Kings, who played extremely well – as did his colleague, Christopher Allsop. The harmonium was entrusted to Peter Dyke. Frequently the instrument is barely audible – no fault of Mr Dyke – but the harmonium gets its moment in the sun in the instrumental ‘Preludio Religioso’ which, apart from the opening and closing bars, is played solely by the harmonium. Quite frankly the music is pretty tedious and if Rossini had edited it to half the length it would have been beneficial. So far as I can see it serves no real purpose other than to give the singers a breather after the rigours of the end of the ‘Credo’. However, Peter Dyke played it extremely well. I had wondered how audible the accompaniment might be in the large acoustic of the cathedral but the sound of the instruments carried very well.
Geraint Bowen conducted the piece very well, bringing out the freshness and sheer joie de vivre that underpins much of Rossini’s writing while ensuring that the more serious side of the music made its mark.
The performance was given without the advertised interval which pleased me; it would have been disappointing had the continuity of the work been disrupted.
This was a fine and enjoyable performance. I hope that a good number of this proficient and enthusiastic Youth Choir will find their way into the Festival Chorus in years to come.