Rossini’s dismissal of the Petite Messe Solennelle as one of his ‘sins of old age’ should not be taken literally. The title may be ironic but it’s correct: the Petite Messe is a modest work but seriously intended.
In his interpretation, compellingly realised by a City of Birmingham Choir in lustrous collective voice, Adrian Lucas was clearly of the same mind in his eagerness to bring out all the richness and expressive range of Rossini’s vocal writing.
And he was stunningly successful. From the Kyrie, sensitively proportioned in tonal shading, balance and articulation, to the thrilling attack of the Gloria and Credo, this performance bristled with good things.
Even the two killer fugues, Cum Sancto Spiritu and Et vitam venturi, with their endless Amens which can so easily degenerate into a murky thrash, were delivered with clarity, wonderfully sprung rhythms and a total awareness of musical structure; and the unaccompanied Christ eleison and Sanctus lost neither pitch nor emotional impact.
Such an ideally judged, well nigh faultless choral reading ought to have had four soloists to match. Not so here. Although they made a well-balanced ensemble, Helen Meyerhoff, Susanna Spicer, Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks and Christopher Foster brought too much oratorio respectability to their individual solos, rather than the operatic intensity and full-throated Italianate passion that Rossini demands.
No quibbles, though, about the accompaniment. David Newsholme made a pungently voiced 1880 Mustel harmonium sound really quite beautiful, while the piano duo of Christopher Robinson (how lovely to see and hear him again with the choir he conducted for so many years) and daughter Libby showed a perfect mix of subtlety and assertiveness.