Saturday, 16 June 2018

Petite Messe Solennelle - The RNCM, Manchester

This evening's concert was given over to the music of Gioachino Rossini, an Italian composer of the late Classical and early Romantic periods, known mostly for his many and beautiful operas.

The main work on the programme was his Petite Messe Solennelle, but before this we heard two smaller chamber works.

First, a transcription and orchestral reduction of his overture to his last opera, William Tell, scored now for piano 4 hands. This arrangement was made during Rossini's lifetime by his friend Louis Gottschalk in order for him to tour the music back home in his native USA without requiring a full orchestra! It is an incredible arrangement and one which despite the simple beauty of the melodies, requires uncompromising technique and skill to accomplish the technicalities of performing what would normally be played by a full symphony orchestra with just four hands on one piano! Achieving that task with aplomb and flourish were brothers Jonathan and Tom who play together regularly and are known as The Scott Brothers Duo.

Following this we listened to Rossini's Wind Quartet no:3. These pieces were originally composed whilst on holiday at the age of 12! However, in later life he arranged and transcribed them into the form we heard this evening. originally 6 short pieces for a quintet of players, reduced to the more traditional and acceptable format. This evening the quartet was Irene Jimenez Lizcano (flute), Antonio Perez-Barrera (clarinet), Andrea Yauri (bassoon), and William Padfield (horn). Despite his tender age, the authority and musicianship of his genius was utterly evident, as were shadows of later compositions. Never one to let a good tune go to waste, we could hear fragments of arias and choruses from his later operas hidden in the 'trademark'  Rossini long passages of semi-quavers and simple melodies repeating themselves as they become louder and louder. Played excellently by these four musicians it was a piece of Rossini's I had not encountered before.

And so to the 'headline act' of the evening, and perhaps one of the most badly named pieces of music ever! Petite Messe Solennelle is a French title which translates as a small and solemn mass. This work is a substantial and grandiose piece of exquisite beauty and joyous and lively in it's composition and execution. Small and solemn are words which simply do not belong here!

Composed when he was 71, long after he had 'retired' from composing and decades after his last opera, and originally intended for a private performance with only 12 singers it was later augmented and orchestrated. However, this evening the original scoring was used - that of two pianos and harmonium.

The pianists were Tom Scott and Silvia Magagni with the second Scott brother playing the harmonium; a rare instrument indeed, built in 1884 by Mustel in Paris. Only a handful of these amazing and beautiful instruments were made, and of those made, still less extant.

Joining these three were 21-strong RNCM Chamber Choir, and a plethora of 16 soloists taking turns between them to sing the solos in this work.

It is a work of great beauty and charm, and is possibly Rossini's most fully-rounded and complete composition. None of his humour or musical irony has been lost, nor his love of rousing swells and triumphant resonant choruses. His joyously clever repetitive motifs gathering momentum and volume are still evidenced, as is his love of the dramatic. The work starts with the pianos playing a jaunty almost jazzy style accompaniment upon which he cleverly juxtaposes a grandiose hymnal chorus - genius! And the work continues in this vein, giving weight and depth to the more dramatic and emotive passages whilst keeping the mood light and effervescent with his bright melodies and lyrical passages. There are a couple of unaccompanied choral sections as well as a middle section for piano and harmonium solos, in which the harmonium 'showed off' its capabilities with a charming Bach-like fugue.

The finale, sung to the words of the Agnus Dei is Rossini at his very best. He combines a pure and lyric soprano solo ' qui tollis peccata mundi' against the full force of the choir in beautiful harmony 'Agnus Dei' bringing this melody-sandwich to a huge crescendo before it stops abruptly at a dominant cadence to let the whole work finish with his signature on the piano and harmonica. It is the 'pom pom' that comes after the 'I-tiddli-I-Tie'. A wonderful 'scherzo'.  

The only thing I would say is that the soloists looked rather 'dressed-down' and casual this evening. Since there were so many of them, it would have been nicer to have seen a little uniformity in dress code and colour co-ordination. The men especially looked rather ragged with open-neck shirts. Not really fitting for a 'Mass' no matter how joyous!

The concert was also on the long side. I would have been tempted to have left the Wind Quartet out of the programme. It was plenty long enough without it. Just my personal thoughts - nothing to do with the quality of the playing at all.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 15/6/18

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