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"Good God--behold completed this poor little Mass--is it indeed? You know well, I was born for comic opera. Little science, a little heart, that is all. So may you be blessed, and grant me Paradise!"
(Rossini, Passy, 1863)
Thus Rossini dedicated to posterity his Petite messe solennelle - "the last", as he called it, "of my péchés de vieillesse"; it has excited debate ever since regarding its sincerity or otherwise as liturgical music. Composed as a commission for the dedication of a private chapel, Rossini was free of the Church's interdiction upon female voices and able to write for his favourite soloists, the sisters Carlotta and Barbara Marchisio. Although this could have opened the door to the operatic exuberance characteristic of Verdi's Requiem, Rossini in fact writes in an extraordinarily restrained and elegant vein, avoiding all excess. The mournful mood throughout is effected by Rossini's preference for minor keys.
The original scoring - Rossini made an orchestral arrangement shortly before his death to prevent the inevitable being performed by a lesser hand - relies merely upon two pianos (the second barely necessarily and often omitted in performance and recording but present here), a harmonium, a small choir of eight and four solo singers ( to represent the twelve apostles). However, those four singers - shades of Il trovatore here - need to be absolutely superb. It is in fact a judicious admixture of mass and cantata, reflecting the composer's awareness of his mortality and his hopes for salvation in a style that touchingly suggests he saw litte point at this late stage in his life in trying to re-invent himself and totally shake off the musical idiom that had served him so well in the past, hence the piquant combination of the buoyant and the sombre .
The opening movement establishes a somewhat eerie mood which prefigures the emotional ambivalence the listener experiences throughout this peculiar composition. A jaunty, jumpy demonic little figure on the piano in A minor is joined by a stuttering commentary by the harmonium and then the choir intone a rising plea; all is anxious trepidation until suddenly, just a minute twenty seconds in, we modulate to a comforting E major, hope is rekindled and we settle on C major before the choir embarks upon a serene four-part supplication in sixteenth century polyphonic style, only for the whole sequence to resume with renewed anxiety. In a sense, therefore, the Kyrie is a microcosm of all the incongruities in this fascinating music.
Scimone is a Rossini specialist and is here working with a team of first class opera singers, all of whom are themselves experienced Rossinians, so performing in the right idiom was never going to be a problem. He takes a faster, leaner approach than any other recording I know but I do not mean that as a criticism. He brings the kind of nervy tension one would expect to a composition about which the composer himself was unable to decide, famously punning in French that he didn't know whether he had written sacred or damned music [la musique sacrée or la sacrée musique].
The choir, too, are highly accomplished although they are unnecessarily harried and hustled by Scimone's exceptionally sprightly tempo in the Cum sancto spirito which is in danger of mistaking speed for excitement and sacrifices expressive phrasing to supposed tension. This section might well be marked "alla breve" but it at some points it risks disintegrating into a scramble and intonation goes awry, even in so expert a group as the Ambrosians. The clumsiness here might also be the result of Scimone having opted to use a considerably bigger choir than Rossini stipulated and they are singing in a fairly resonant acoustic. Nonetheless, most of the time they are, as you would expect, very expert and pointed, bringing bounce and lift to their singing.
Apart from the quality and professionalism of this performance, another bonus is that it avoids the disastrous flaw in the competitive recording on Decca, conducted by Gandolfi, which goes horribly flat in the Sanctus. You would never have thought that in a commercial recording that could have gone unnoticed by the producer's or conductor's ear, but it did; Gandolfi's choir are pulled down a semitone from C to B by Raimondi miss-pitching his entrance. No such occurrence here, thankfully. That Decca set is the obvious alternative to this one by Scimone if you want the original scoring, otherwise the recording of the orchestrated version by Chailly, also on Decca, provides an attractive alternative.
Apart from the pitch problem - which should never really have been an issue in any case - and the slight loss of poise in the Cum sancto spirito notwithstanding, any perceived advantage that this reissue may have over the competition will probably depend mainly upon your preference in soloists and choir, and whether you like the livelier direction Scimone gives the piece. All the solo voices here are intrinsically lovely, although Carreras is rather strenuous in the minor and major sixth leaps of the Domine Deus and lunges at his high A on Gloria tua. Pavarotti is more nuanced in terms of dynamics and shading. On the other hand, Carreras has that peculiar plangency of tone compared with Pavarotti's harder voice. Both mezzos are superb, although I have a special affection for Zimmerman's rich timbre with its flickering vibrato. It is particularly welcome that the mezzo-soprano should possess such a fine voice as Rossini clearly lavished care upon his writing for her, giving her the last, not entirely convincing, word in the Agnus Dei, in which the minor-key gremlins haunt us right to the end. Zimmerman sings most eloquently here, her voice caressing the gloomy grandeur of the music. Freni and Ricciarelli both have beautiful, instantly recognisable, voices and are not dissimilar in approach; both blend affectingly with their mezzo partners. Ricciarelli is marginally more expressive but is not as steady: there is a slight, incipient wobble on longer, louder notes. Her artistry is especially in evidence in the post-Communion hymn O salutaris hostia, which calls on her ability to float a phrase. The only clear superiority in Scimone's version lies in Samuel Ramey's clean, incisive bass which is preferable to Raimondi's lugubrious sliding. However, Raimondi has his chance to shine on the Scimone disc as he is the principal artist in the welcome bonus track of the famous Preghiera from Mosé in Egitto - an apt pairing with the mass.
Craig Sheppard's piano solo in the Prélude religieux is very elegantly played; its clear homage to the Baroque keyboard reminds us how retrospective is much of Rossini's style here; this is the work of an old man acknowledging his debt to predecessors such as Palestrina, Bach and Haydn.
Richard Osborne's notes are full and informative, although there is no libretto, which is irritating. Nor are here enough cues: only two on the first disc, despite the Gloria being over thirty-two minutes long, making it impossible to find any of its many discrete sections. Similarly, the Credo, at sixteen minutes, also needs them. The sound is a little muddy and recessed compared with the Decca disc but not a barrier to the listener's pleasure.
According to their website Newton Classics is a Dutch based record label, founded in 2009. "Its vision is to return old friends to the classical music lover, and these friends are all fantastic recordings being sourced from the vaults of major record labels." This disc was originally on Philips/Universal and certainly hasn't been available for a considerable length of time so this reissue is very welcome. It's a pity that their house style, on the evidence of the issues so far, evinces a propensity for rather garish packaging with lots of screaming scarlet.