Accepted critical opinion has it that Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle is his last masterpiece. This view no doubt bolstered by those whose regret of the composer’s early abandonment of opera is tempered by a need to cling appreciatively to what little of substantive length came from his later years. Rossini himself called it the last of his mortal ‘péchés de vieillesse’ (sins of old age) as he wondered if he had indeed written a religious work at all, given that he was “born for opera buffo”. Normally one might assume that Rossini’s assertion was laden with irony, but regarding the Petite Messe Solennelle he could have knowingly been acknowledging the truth. The work could well be claimed as a sin against musical taste, as this first performance in the BBC Proms 122 year history laid bare its fundamental weaknesses of flawed structure and lack of any vestige of unifying stylistic approach.
Written in 1863 at the behest of the Count and Countess Pillet-Will for the consecration of their private chapel, the work was premiered the following year using the minimalist scoring of four part choir (12 singers including four soloists), two pianos and harmonium. Rossini reconsidered this and reduced the piano to a single instrument. Only later did he reluctantly orchestrate the accompaniment and sanction the need for larger choral forces. This BBC Proms performance within the neo-classical splendour of the Chapel at the Old Royal Navel College Greenwich did at least focus attention on an approximation of the setting and scale the work was conceived for, though the BBC Singers comprised eight sopranos and six altos, tenors and basses.
The highlights of this performance are easily conveyed, and they were most welcome given the context of this single work concert as a whole. The BBC Singers under chief conductor David Hill did much to enliven the choral elements within the work. They produced singing that had a cleanliness to their collective tonal blending from the opening Kyrie and throughout, a subtlety to their articulation of the intricately scored text in the Credo in particular, and thrillingly fulsome yet unforced sound was in evidence in forte passages.
Of the four soloists, soprano Elizabeth Watts proved the most consistently reliable of technique and even of tone throughout her range. Her emotional involvement was in evidence too in the Qui tollis peccata duet with mezzo soloist Kathryn Rudge and the lyrical soprano solo, O salutaris Hostia. Rudge proved a reliable mezzo soloist, bringing a fleeting touch of the operatic to her solo Agnus Dei in particular. If only the same could be said of the other soloists. Tenor Peter Auty’s rather throaty and forced tone verged more towards being appropriate for some opera buffo parody, but here in Rossini’s sinful late Mass he might just have escaped sounding totally miscast, as he would have been in another work. Bass James Platt varied his contributions between something vocally focussed and possessing a resonant, patrician quality to a more overtly backwardly placed operatic tone in fortissimo.
David Hill imposed order where he could to the eclectic melodic sweetmeats that teemed from Rossini’s muddled mind. But, try though he did, when the fault lies with the composer ultimately his efforts were to little avail. The Gloria refused to flow with any unity at all, mixing as it does aspects of high drama, opera seria and opera buffo during its meandering, disjointed course. If anything reminiscent of religious reflection was in evidence it was to be found in the Sanctus and Benedictus, and the closing Agnus Dei. Richard Pearce did what he could with the harmonium part, adding colour along the way. The lion’s share of the accompaniment fell to Iain Farrington at the piano and he proved fully up to producing the menacing, dramatic chords and ornamental support required of him. But despite enthusiastic applause at the end, it has to be said that reactions included “Rossini, what were you thinking?” A salutary reminder indeed that not every work from the pen of a great composer is a masterpiece, and that accepted critical wisdom should not always be taken at face value.