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Robert Farr
MusicWeb International, December 2011

In making this a DVD of the month, I suggested that the performance it receives under Chailly elevates this rarely heard work not only to stand alongside the composer’s better-known Stabat Mater, but also the great Mass by his fellow Italian opera composer, Verdi. © MusicWeb International

Richard Osborne
Gramophone, June 2011

A stylish live performance of Rossini’s beefed-up ‘little’ Mass

Shortly before he died in 1868, Rossini orchestrated his last substantial masterpiece, the Petite Messe solennelle, not because it required orchestration but to stop chancers and go-getters doing so after his death.

The original scoring for 12 voices, two pianos and harmonium is so distinctive and so apt to the work’s courtly, gamesome and yet at the same time angst-ridden character that one wonders why anyone would wish to undertake the far-from-easy task of performing it with more substantial choral forces than Rossini originally intended.

That said, it is a work to which choral societies have been increasingly drawn in recent years. Riccardo Chailly first pointed the way in 1993 with a superb CD recording with the Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Comunale, Bologna (Decca), and this live performance filmed in the Leipzig Gewandhaus in November 2008 is if anything even finer. The combined choirs of the Gewandhaus and the Leipzig Opera sing like chamber musicians in a stylish, spruce and beautifully scaled performance—the kind Mendelssohn might have conducted had he lived to hear his admired friend’s valedictory masterpiece.

Chailly has two dark-toned soloists on the distaff side, nicely matched with a mobile bass and quick-eyed tenor. If there is a reservation to be entered it concerns the soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska, whose somewhat restless singing, and the equally restless camerawork it seems to inspire, doesn’t always sit well in the larger context. The pivotal “Crucifixus” is none too well projected. The Agnus Dei of the ever-reliable Manuela Custer is, by contrast, superb.

Rossini’s orchestration, itself not without interest as a period phenomenon, is realised with tact and imagination by Chailly and his Gewandhaus players, and organist Michael Schönheit gives a magisterial account of the transitional “Prélude religieux”, which emerges here as the kind of large-scale organ improvisation Rossini might well have expected it to be in the altered context.

Robert J Farr
MusicWeb International, March 2011

Gioacchino Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle was written in 1863, the last, the composer called it, of my péchés de vieillesse (sins of old age). He wrote the work for the consecration of the private chapel of the work’s dedicatee, Countess Louise Pillet-Will, a personal friend. For its first performance on 14 March 1864 Rossini arranged the work with only two pianos, harmonium, four soloists and a choir of twelve. Partly for fear that it would be done anyway after his death, Rossini discreetly orchestrated the Petite Messe Solennelle during 1866–67 and in doing so the king of opera buffa showed his skill in counterpoint in the two extended double fugues, much as Verdi had done in the finale of his last opera Falstaff. The resulting orchestrated version had its first public performance on 28 February 1869, three months after the composer’s death.

The magnificently orchestrated version was performed at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in November 2008 on the occasion of the 140th anniversary of the composer’s death. The Gewandhaus Orchestra, along with Kurt Masur, its conductor at the time, will always be remembered for their part in the fight for freedom in 1989 as the East German Government sought brutally to repress the population. The stand they took against the repression precipitated the fall of the hated Berlin Wall and the re-unification of Germany. Is it too far to stretch the appropriateness of a performance of a Latin Mass, and its promises of eternal life, with the ideal for which they stood? Certainly these choral and orchestral forces, along with distinguished soloists, in the magnificent theatre and under the baton of a renowned Rossinian, brought such thoughts to my mind.

The joint choruses, with the women of the two choirs distinguished by dress, and all the men in white tie, sing with a thrilling clarity and commitment that not only shakes the rafters but warms the soul. They open softly in the Kyrie (CH.2), are fully vibrant in the opening of the Gloria (CH.3) and are outstanding in the contrapuntal Cum Sancto Spiritu (CH.8). The orchestral contribution is equally magnificent with low strings and wind notable in the opening as are the brass and wind in the Gratis agimus tubi (CH.4). Before mentioning the singers I must also highlight Rossini’s writing for the organ in the Preludio religioso (CH 12) and the organist Michael Schönheit on the large and magnificent instrument from which he draws such elegiac sounds. It is particularly interesting to see his pedal work in close-ups as well as hands moving over the keyboard. The muting mechanism gives further insight into the tonal diversity of this quite large and magnificent instrument.

The solo singers are well up to their task. The two ladies, the tall blonde Manuela Custer, with a sappy resonance and suitable lower notes, alongside the dark-haired warm dramatic coloratura soprano of Alexandrina Pendatchanska, blend well in the Qui tollis (CH.6)…Pendatchanska’s creamy tone is heard to advantage as soloist in the Crucifixus (CH.10) whilst the alto has the concluding long Agnus Dei (CH.15) in which her singing is a glory in itself. Whilst the ladies hark from Bulgaria and Romania, the two men are native Italians. Perhaps Mirco Palazzi, whilst his pitching and expression allied to smooth legato is fine, could do with a little more sonority and gravitas, (CHs.3 and 7). When we often grumble of tasteless tenor singing, the native fluent squilla of Stefano Secco’s lyric tenor lays easily on my ear, particularly in the Gratius (CH.4) with its echoes of the Cujus animam from the composer’s Stabat mater.

This work is titled Petite Messe Solennelle. It is neither small nor, in this dramatic reading by Riccardo Chailly, can it be deemed solemn. If this creation is a sin, my old age, and many others, could be better used! This performance strongly gives the work the right to claim as an equal to stand alongside the composer’s other great choral work the Stabat Mater, and elevates it to be counted in the company of that other great Mass composed by a renowned composer of opera, Verdi.

The camera-work is nicely balanced between orchestra, instrumentalists, audience and chorus with the odd view of the dynamic Riccardo Chailly…

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5:56:26 AM, 2 July 2015
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