‘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 manuscript score of his Petite Messe Solennelle.
The Mass is a very late work and it was composed long after the peak of Rossini’s fame. In 1829 he wrote perhaps his grandest opera of all, William Tell but thereafter, despite promises to produce more stage works, no further operas materialised. For the remaining 39 years of his life Rossini wrote a large number of pieces of chamber music – these he often referred to jokingly as his ‘sins of old age.’ However, the only two significant scores that he produced were religious choral works. First, in 1832 came the dramatic Stabat Mater, though this only became the magnificent work we know today after Rossini added extra movements in 1841.
The Petite Messe Solennelle, the second of these substantial religious works, was completed in 1863. It received its first performance the following year at the dedication ceremony for the newly-built private chapel in the Paris home of a very wealthy family. At this first performance there were just 12 singers, including the four soloists, and the accompaniment was provided by a pair of pianos and a harmonium. In 1865 the mass was given a second performance, also private, by similar forces. In 1867 Rossini orchestrated the work so that it could be performed by larger forces and in substantial buildings, but this version was never performed in his lifetime. In fact, the piano/harmonium version is probably the more frequently performed of the two versions. The second piano part is not essential: it only plays at certain times in the work, when it is used to reinforce the primary instrument. The use of a harmonium is most interesting. An organ would have overwhelmed the pianos; instead the softer-grained harmonium, with its very distinctive sound, adds an unusual timbre and spice to the music.
The title of the work may seem inappropriate. Given that it lasts for some 80 minutes it is scarcely ‘petite’ in scale and much of the music is not exactly solemn in tone. The use of the word ‘solenelle’ is deliberate in order to distinguish the setting from a Messe basse. As for the description ‘petite’, Rossini may have had his tongue in his cheek. That said, he prefaced the manuscript score with a note in which he makes it clear that the small forces which first performed the mass were what he intended – he went so far as to refer to the 12 singers as “a total of twelve cherubims.” The Petite Messe Solennelle is very different to the Stabat Mater. Much of the latter work is dark and dramatic, as befits its subject matter. By contrast the mass is much jollier overall. If in the Stabat Mater we see Rossini the dramatist at work, here in the mass we frequently encounter Rossini the operatic entertainer.
The present performance is not new to the catalogue; Robert Hugill
reviewed it in 2004, when it was issued by Hänssler Classic. I’m not sure exactly how large a choir Rupert Huber uses; such information is lacking in the distinctly minimalist documentation that accompanies this release. I would guess, though, that the choir numbers between 30 and 40 voices. They sing very proficiently though occasionally I found the extreme hairpin dynamics in which they indulge – doubtless under orders – a bit overdone. I enjoyed the choral side of this performance very much indeed. I found it fascinating to compare the performance with a most interesting one recorded for Hyperion in 2005 by Robert King and The King’s Consort, which I don’t think we ever reviewed (CDA67570). King attempts to reconstruct the work’s first performance in 1864, using 12 singers. He also used period instruments: an 1863 Bösendorfer and a modern copy of a roughly contemporaneous Graf instrument. The harmonium, too, is authentic: an 1868 French instrument was used. I presume, from what I hear, that Huber used modern instruments. Incidentally, it may be due to the smaller forces involved or better engineering but the harmonium tends to be more readily audible on the Hyperion disc. This combination of period instruments and small vocal forces yields many intriguing results.
I enjoyed much about the Huber performance, though. As I said, his choir does very well indeed and never does one get the impression of listening to a large, unwieldy ensemble. The work contains two substantial fugues in the conventional places – ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ at the end of the Gloria and ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’ in the Credo. In both cases, King goes like the wind, setting his dozen singers a formidable challenge of articulation, which is passed with ease. Huber is more traditional in his speeds - ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ takes a whole minute longer – but his choir sings lightly and nimbly. Not only that but they’re really exciting at the end of the Gloria. I don’t think anyone will be disappointed by the choral singing on this disc.
Matters are not so straightforward when it comes to the soloists, though. Helen Schneiderman sings expressively and tastefully for Huber, though I like Hilary Summers, a genuine contralto, even more on the King version – her ‘Agnus Dei’ is marvellous. King was obliged to share the tenor solos between two singers, Andrew Tortise and William Unwin, because during the sessions illness ravaged his tenor section – no fewer than six voices were used in the end. Tortise is the principal and he has the tenor’s big number, ‘Domine Deus’. He hasn’t got the tonal body that we hear from Kenneth Tarver on the Huber disc. Furthermore, I think King’s tempo is too jaunty. As for the basses, both Reiner Holthaus (Huber) and Andrew Foster-Williams (King) acquit themselves well though the latter has more vocal amplitude and thus appeals to me more.
Choice is much more clear cut when it comes to the sopranos. King has Carolyn Sampson. She does
not attempt to be Italianate, and rightly so. Instead, she sings with intelligence and gleaming tone. I’m afraid that Lucia Mazzaria is definitely the weak link in the Huber performance as far as I’m concerned. She’s generous – over generous, in fact – with the vibrato and there’s a distressing tendency to spread top notes – that, if nothing else, makes her a distinct second best to Sampson in ‘O salutaris hostia’. In addition, she often appears to approach notes from below. The contrast between her and Helen Schneiderman is readily apparent in their duet ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ whereas in this duet Sampson and Summers are well matched in every respect on the King disc.
The accompaniment is reliable on the Huber disc but I hear greater imagination from King’s pianists – and that’s not just because they use softer-grained pianos. The dreary ‘Preludio religioso’ not only sounds a bit more interesting when played on an instrument of the period but is also more interestingly played by King’s pianist.
One thing that I should mention is that King’s singers use French pronunciation of the Latin text, appropriate to the period. Huber’s singers use conventional pronunciation which listeners may find more to their taste.
Both recordings are well engineered. The Hyperion disc comes with comprehensive documentation, the SWR disc does not.
Rupert Huber offers a reliable performance which is generally well sung; other listeners may warm to his soprano soloist rather more than I did. The King performance, superbly sung and rather more imaginative all round, is very well worth hearing, though, because it casts Rossini’s “poor little mass” in a fascinating light.
Founding Editor Rob Barnett Editor in Chief
John Quinn Seen & Heard Editor Emeritus Bill Kenny MusicWeb Webmaster
David Barker Postmaster
Jonathan Woolf MusicWeb Founder Len Mullenger