Wigmore New Year’s Eve

Mass for Four Voices
Petite Messe solennelle

The King’s Consort:
Carolyn Sampson & Rebecca Outram (soprano)
Hilary Summers & Sian Menna (alto)
James Gilchrist & Charles Daniels (tenor)
Andrew Foster-Williams & Robert Evans (bass)

Gary Cooper & Matthew Halls (pianos)
Mark Williams (harmonium)

Robert King

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 31 December, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

“New Year’s Eve Concert: Musique sacrée ou sacrée musique?” An interesting idea: juxtapose one of the most sober, sublime and heartfelt expressions of faith from the Elizabethan period with one of the most joyful, theatrical and frankly inappropriate settings of the Mass from the 19th-century. Did it come off? Well, yes and no. One had the feeling that the Byrd was deliberately held back to emphasise its ascetic rather than its aesthetic qualities in order to effect a greater contrast with the unbridled Romanticism of the Rossini. Had the Consort given as full and rich a sound to the earlier work as it did to the latter, the concert would have been a more satisfying experience all round. And yet there was much to admire in King’s conception of William Byrd’s setting. Despite the syllabic, unbarred nature of the music, rhythmic accents were located and emphasised when appropriate – this was particularly noticeable in the “Credo”. And rhythm in a more general sense was made to animate certain words, like the lilt brought to ‘vivificantem’ or the forward motion applied to the dactyls of ‘venit’ (in the “Benedictus”). Tempo and dynamics were likewise employed to highlight the meaning of the text (the lively ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ of the “Sanctus” being a good example). Pity about the coughing fit during what is surely the Mass’s most beautiful moment, the “Agnus Dei”. Then again, the opening also left the excessive vibrato of the sopranos and altos quite exposed.

Byrd’s Mass was sung two to a part, the voices blending beautifully most of the time, save the occasionally obtrusive vibrato mentioned above. Rossini’s Petite Messe solennelle was presented here with the same vocal forces, apparently the size asked for in the autograph score. But Robert King cheated a bit: Rossini specifies 12 voices, the soloists making up a separate group. Here the soloists formed part of the chorus as well. It’s a moot point as to whether you get the same effect: surely a singer who has just had to negotiate a lengthy bel canto aria is not going to be able to contribute to a full blooded chorus in quite the same way as a fresh voice? And while we’re on the subject of authenticity, King also assembled a curious group of keyboard instruments approximating those which would have been available to Rossini in Paris at the time: a Bösendorfer (quite novel for the period), a Viennese Graf and a French Debain harmonium. Beautiful textures resulted: the lighter Graf filling out the Bösendorfer’s sound in the choruses nicely, the Debain adding a curious accordion-like colour.

This was a fun, good-natured performance; the choruses packed a real punch, the mellower a cappella sections were just as vigorous, and the fugues really made your hair stand on end. The soloists were all impressive, especially tenor Charles Daniels (whose ‘Domine Deus’ was a model of bel canto singing in the true sense) and soprano Carolyn Sampson (her ‘O Salutaris Hostia’ was quite a treat). But I can’t end without mentioning Gary Cooper’s superb piano solo on the Bösendorfer: he really worked it into a serious, meditative interlude. And the audience appreciated it, reserving the biggest cheer for him.

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