Petite Messe Solennelle - Rossini
Review by Lawrence Tomlinson:
There was a sense of expectancy as the audience gathered for the Penrith Singers Spring Concert on Sunday (12th May). The Rossini Mass can be such a delight, the more so on a cold and wet evening such as this. The choir of some 80 voices began in confident mood with all four parts sure and strong in Charles Wood’s anthem ‘O Thou the central orb of righteous love’.
How good it is to have such excellent programme notes. There, I learnt that the mother of John Ireland, the composer of our second anthem, was the daughter of Dr. Nicholson of Penrith, after whom Nicholson Lane was named - a little gem of information. The anthem ‘Greater love hath no man’ is a setting of words taken from St John’s gospel and St Peter’s first letter. Within the piece, a short passage for Soprano and Tenor soloists was sung with clarity by choir members, Stephanie Chadwick and Alistair Harper. This led to the central section and climax of the work, with choir in full voice singing, ‘Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,’ the piece then closing in quiet reflection. In both anthems Ian Hare’s organ accompaniment supported the choir with every variation of mood and dynamics.
And so to the Rossini ‘Petite Messe Solennelle’ - the small solemn mass. Well, it is small in that it was originally scored for piano and harmonium and not full orchestral accompaniment. And it is solemn, being the operatic composer’s only composition of the mass. But then in length it is not ‘small’ being of some 75 minutes duration, and in style, hardly solemn as it is so tuneful and joyous. The piano accompaniment is on an orchestral scale and requires a pianist of the calibre of David Jones to provide the necessary support for choir and soloists, while the harmonium, played by Ian Hare, filled out the harmonies at appropriate points in the score. So it was in the opening ‘Kyrie’.
With the opening of the ‘Gloria’ the choir was joined by all four soloists, who throughout the work would be singing sometimes in ensemble and sometimes individually. In the ‘Gloria’ there is a section for mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass which revealed straight away how their voices were so well balanced as they conveyed their delight in Rossini’s tunefulness. Soprano, Rachel Little, and mezzo-soprano, Audrey McKirdy sang blended perfectly in ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’. There were solo arias for tenor, Adam Magee, and bass, Adam Marsden, during the ‘Gloria’ and each so competently sung in Rossini’s operatic style. The chorus clearly enjoyed ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ as it begins with full vigour before turning into a fugue which danced with joy bringing out all parts but highlighting the strength and yet lightness of the soprano voices. In the ‘Credo’ there were times when David Jones’ piano accompaniment was all but orchestral in scale and power. But then in contrast, Rachel Little sang so sensitively the flowing melody of the ‘Crucifixus‘.
Ian Hare, at the harmonium, used well the one opportunity the instrument had to shine, in a solo which changed the mood for the unaccompanied choir to follow so beautifully with the ‘Sanctus.’ But then in the full glorious cry of the ‘Hosanna’ one could picture the cheering crowds as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. Finally Audrey McKirdy joined the chorus in the quietly pleading ‘Agnus Dei’, and sang with such a warm, full, and rounded quality to her voice, perfectly complementing the full choir.
Colin Marston, the choir’s conductor for 29 years is to be congratulated. He has been a faithful and inspirational leader taking the choir through a whole range of music. The members, I know, enjoy it thoroughly. So how grateful we, the audience, were to leave St Andrews after listening to such joyous music with smiles on our faces, a spring in our step, and our hearts uplifted!