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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Petite Messe Solenelle (1863, orch, 1867)
Marina Rebeka (soprano); Sara Mingardo (alto); Francesco Meli (tenor); Alex Esposito (bass); Daniele Rossi (organ)
Coro Dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Roma
Orchestra Dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Roma/Sir Antonio Pappano
rec. in concert, 10, 12-13 November 2012, Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome. DDD
Latin text and English translation included
EMI CLASSICS 4167422 [58:26 + 26:53]

‘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 score of his Petite Messe Solenelle

Was there ever a less appropriate title for a piece of music than that which Rossini gave to his late setting of the Mass? Lasting some 85 minutes it is scarcely ‘petite’ in scale - certainly not when heard in his later orchestral version - and arguably 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. While Rossini may perhaps have planted his tongue in his cheek when using the word ‘petite’ the scale, if not the length, was modest in the original version for which a vocal ensemble of just twelve singers, including the four soloists, was specified, accompanied by two pianos and harmonium. Furthermore, as Stephen Jay-Taylor points out in his note, the only two performances that took place in the composer’s lifetime were given in private. He also adds the interesting fact that in a letter written in 1866 Rossini, who was by then clearly intending to orchestrate the piece, described his original accompaniment as ‘provisional’. The orchestration was completed in 1867 but it was not performed in this format until 1869, by which time Rossini was dead.
Though I first became acquainted with the work in its original version - in a good recording by the CBSO Chorus and Simon Halsey, which I suspect is no longer available - I prefer it in its orchestral guise, largely because there’s so much more colour in that scoring. Both versions are equally valid and there’s a certain charm about the sound of the harmonium, wheezing away in the original version. It took some time, I believe, for the orchestral edition to achieve a recording and I think I’m right in saying that the Decca recording that Riccardo Chailly made in Bologna in May 1993 was the first. There have not been all that many recordings of the orchestral version since then. The Chailly account, released in 1995 and which I acquired years ago, is still in the catalogue and many collectors will have it so I thought some comparisons between it and this newcomer would be in order.
Sir Antonio Pappano’s credentials as a Rossini conductor have already been established strongly with his splendid recording of the Stabat Mater, about which Simon Thompson was very enthusiastic (review) though Robert J Farr very fairly expressed one or two reservations (review). There has also been a DVD recording of Il Barbiere di Siviglia (review) and an audio recording of William Tell, though neither of those has come my way.
This new recording of Petite Messe Solenelle is very impressive. Pappano’s chorus is on fine form throughout. They’re full-throated and committed when required to sing loudly - at the start and end of the Gloria, for example, or at the beginning of the Credo. They also do the fugues at the end of both the Gloria and the Credo well; their vivacious account of the latter fugue is especially good and it’s not their fault that the music itself goes on rather too long. However, their soft singing impresses just as much; they’re very fine in the Sanctus and Benedictus movements and their hushed interjections in the Agnus Dei are extremely well judged. The singing is well disciplined throughout. Chailly’s Bolognese chorus sings well for him but I think that their Roman rivals have the edge. One thing that puzzles me slightly is that Chailly’s chorus sounds more Italianate in the way they deliver the words; I would have expected two Italian choirs to be similar in this respect. That’s one factor that inclines me to favour Pappano’s singers. The Roman chorus sounds a bit more focused than Chailly’s choir, especially in the softer passages. The somewhat greater presence of the EMI sound helps - the performers are a bit closer - but I think it’s also a question of choral style and technique.
Both orchestras are very accomplished. Once again, it is the Rome orchestra that makes the stronger impact, partly due to the recorded sound. However, in at least one key passage Chailly’s players are to be preferred, as we shall see.
All the soloists in this new version are Italian with the exception of the young Latvian soprano, Marina Rebeka. Her voice was new to me though I see she impressed Simon Thompson in a 2010 concert performance of War Requiem (review). In fact I haven’t heard any of the soloists before, with the exception of Sara Mingardo. All do well. Francesco Meli is, as you might expect, very Italianate in his vowel production and, to be honest, I’m not altogether sold on that. However, he’s greatly to be preferred to his rival on the Chailly set, Giuseppe Sabbatini. In the principal tenor solo, the cheerful, jaunty Domine Deus, Sabbatini’s tone is tight and unpleasantly narrow in focus whereas Meli is open-throated and much superior.
Chailly enjoys an advantage, though a less clear-cut one, when it comes to the bass soloists. Alex Esposito sings well for Pappano, deploying a firm, clear voice throughout and singing with style and good taste. He gives a good account of Quoniam tu solus Sanctus. However, Michele Pertusi, who sings for Chailly, is more imposing; in fact his singing is superb at all times and he has the right amount of vocal weight and presence - not too much, but just enough. It was only after doing my listening that I did a little web research on the soloists and discovered that Alex Esposito is described on his own web site as a bass-baritone, whereas EMI bill him as a bass. Pertusi is unquestionably a bass. I don’t think anyone buying this new recording will be disappointed by Esposito but there’s much to be said for a slightly more substantial voice in this part.
Both recordings have excellent female soloists. Marina Rebeka and Sara Mingardo sing their operatic duet, Qui tollis peccata mundi very expressively and often with sensuous tone. However, Chailly’s ladies, Daniella Dessi and Gloria Scalchi, sound absolutely gorgeous in this number. They’re a bit more relaxed than their rivals and they win this ‘round’ by a narrow margin. In the Crucifixus both sopranos give great pleasure but I find the rich tone of Daniella Dessi particularly irresistible. Both singers are very expressive but arguably Miss Rebeka tries just a little too hard, giving her rival the edge. Just before orchestrating the work Rossini dropped in an extra movement in the form of a setting for the soprano soloist of O salutaris hostia. Rebeka does it very well; the music covers a wide vocal compass and her reading of the piece is dramatic and committed. However, Daniella Dessi gives a melting performance that is simply to die for, caressing the vocal line in a way that won me over completely. I mentioned earlier that there’s at least one point in the score where Chailly’s orchestra has the edge over their Roman colleagues: this is it. The strings are silky. Perhaps it helps that they’re recorded a bit more distantly but the playing is also extremely fine; I wonder if Chailly got the players to use mutes. Pappano’s strings, though excellent too, sound more ‘present’ in this movement and don’t convey the magic that’s in the Chailly. In any event, Chailly’s adorable soprano seals the deal here.
The Agnus Dei contains the deepest music in the piece - the movement which, in my view, comes closest to matching the eloquence of the Stabat Mater. Here the alto soloist takes the lead and both versions under consideration have top class performers. Gloria Scalchi’s singing is distinguished and she is very involving. Working under studio conditions she brings perhaps a touch more poise to the music than Sara Mingardo but that is emphatically not meant as a criticism of Miss Mingardo. Her performance for Pappano is very committed and, perhaps inspired by the presence of an audience, she brings a supplicatory quality to the music and invests it with great feeling. When you add in the fact that the hushed choral passages are better done in the EMI recording then that is the preferable version of the last movement.
Comparing Chailly and Pappano is a case of swings and roundabouts. Both performances are extremely good as are the recordings, though if you hear the Decca recording and then the EMI production you may be inclined to agree with me that the latter has more presence and punch. Both benefit from the fact that the conductors are highly experienced in opera; that’s vital in such music. Pressed to a choice, and with a very regretful backward glance towards Daniella Dessi, I think I’d have to award the palm to Pappano, who has the better chorus and certainly the better tenor. The recorded sound on his version has more impact and his performance is just a degree or two more dramatic and red-blooded even than Chailly’s committed reading.
This is a fine and welcome follow-up to Pappano’s recording of Rossini’s Stabat Mater and, indeed, to his account of the greatest of Romantic Italian sacred works, the Verdi Requiem (review). Opportunities to hear this piece live are not all that frequent, especially in the orchestral version, so this fine and very enjoyable new recording is all the more welcome. 

John Quinn