A brisk ten-minute walk west from the Eiffel Tower, along the right-bank of the Seine, takes you to La Maison de la Radio, headquarters of Radio France. Were you then to head north towards Bois de Boulogne you would reach where Rossini lived during the end of his career, from 1861; it was here three years later that he wrote Petite messe solennelle, scoring it for a chorus of eight singers, four vocal soloists, two pianos and a harmonium, about eighty minutes of mostly irrepressibly tuneful music that is neither small or solemn. At a stroke it seems to combine Italian sunshine and French decadence. An orchestration followed.
This performance in Radio France’s magnificent auditorium (rebuilt after a fire in 2014) was given by forty-six members of Choeur de Radio France, enjoying the distinction of being the only professional chorus in France. Since 2015 its Chief Conductor is the statuesque Swede Sofi Jeannin.
There was much to admire here. The chorus was, by turns, devotional (‘Kyrie’), sonorous (‘Gloria’) and passionate (‘Agnus Dei’); singing with clarity, vitality and a comprehensive corporate technique. In the ‘Credo’, Rossini’s admiration for J. S. Bach drew spirited attack at “et vitam venture” and there was a beguiling rendition of the ‘Preludio religioso’ (with echoes of Beethoven and Schumann) from Catherine Cournot. Mathias Lecomte’s harmonium added aromatic spice.
The soloists were generally good, although their variety in terms of weight and timbre was not ideal for ensembles. Pauline Leroy gave a persuasive account of the ‘Agnus Dei’, and although Grégoire Guérin had a pleasingly bright bass voice (with an easy legato) his neutral delivery of ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ rendered its triumphant setting somewhat lifeless. Pierre Vaello made the best of the theatrical ‘Domine Deus’ but his pocket-tenor was no match for its virtuosic demands. By far the most inspirational singing came from Barbara Vignudelli together with Leroy; their duet ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ showed off their musicianship to perfection with fabulously manicured phrases. Within the ‘Credo’ Vignudelli shaped a magical ‘Crucifixus’ producing warmth and purity of line as well as daringly soft dynamics.
Sofi Jeannin was the perfect guide for Rossini’s stylistic mélange, one of his “sins of old age” invigorated by her focused direction. Pure joy!