Petite Messe Solennelle [Original Version]
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Hilary Summers (contralto)
Andrew Tortise & William Unwin (tenors)
Andrew Foster-Williams (bass)
Gary Cooper & Matthew Halls (pianos)
Mark Williams (harmonium)
The King’s Consort
Recorded 13-15 November 2005 in Cadogan Hall, London
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: September 2006
CD No: HYPERION CDA67570
Duration: 80 minutes
Good intentions abound here. There is a later version of this work fully orchestrated by Rossini but Hyperion has chosen to use the original with its accompaniment limited to two pianos and a harmonium – “as performed in the Paris town house of Comtesse Louise Pillet-Will on Sunday 14 March 1864.”
As asked for by the composer, there are four soloists and a twelve-member chorus (the soloists also double as leaders of the sections representing their particular voice). Five soloists are named but no more than four sing at any one time – Andrew Tortise appears only in the ‘Sanctus’, otherwise William Unwin is the tenor in all other movements requiring solo quartet.
Authenticity is further sought by using “19th-century pianos”, that is from the time of Rossini (this composer’s life – 1792-1868 – spanned a most interesting period: Rossini was actually a contemporary of both Haydn and Sibelius. Just!)
Although described as ‘Petite Messe’, this does not mean ‘Missa Brevis’. All sections of the Mass are there and at nearly 80 minutes it is anything but petite. Nor is it especially solemn. There is nothing wrong with cheerful melodies in a Mass (although in his day Haydn was criticised for being too light-hearted in such works), but with Rossini, the interestingly bare scoring sometimes gives an unexpected atmosphere.
For example ‘Qui tollis’ starts on piano for all the world like the commencement of a sentimental mid-nineteenth-century Salon piece. Again the delightful bouncy chords in ‘Et vitam venturi’ ensure it does not become too serious and the grand flourish that ends the movement has scales alarmingly similar to some that are familiar from Saint Saëns’s The Carnival of the animals.
The opening of the Mass is magically simple: the sparse instrumentation creates a wonderful sense of expectation and the gently syncopated rhythm is delightfully quaint yet remains within the bounds of solemnity. The work builds firmly and confidently throughout its great length. A slight change of mood takes place two-thirds of the way through when, preceded by an instrumental preparation entitled ‘Prélude religieux’, the ‘Sanctus’ takes on a darker, more serious mood and the final culmination is an ‘Agnus Dei’ – the longest of all the movements – which was obviously written with passionate commitment.
This performance of this small-scale music is positive but not everyone will admire the type of directness presented here. It is expressive but often loud and the general force and intensity increases as the work progresses. Maybe this has much to do with the overall conception of the conductor. I have the impression of increasing passion as the work progresses but also increasing sentimentality. I find the soprano too loud and overpowering in the penultimate’ O salutaris hostia’ and the final ‘Agnus Dei’ that follows is more disturbing still. It is fronted by the contralto Hilary Summers who is accurate enough but even louder. This extensive and important section is performed accurately by all concerned but I wish that the conductor had persuaded them into greater sensitivity.
The close of the work typifies the music’s eccentricity (I don’t mean this as a pejorative comment): chorus and soloists end grandly, then keyboards finalise the music forcefully but this is still not the end because suddenly a quiet, hesitant piano sequence creeps in and it is another minute before all the instruments end the work in an air of strange uncertainty.
The recording presents very realistic sound. The listener is close to everything throughout, the chorus is well-balanced but the soloists are surprisingly forward. Nevertheless, in view of the unusual assembly of performers, I cannot fault the engineers for choosing to record the sound in an analytical way.