- Petite messe solennelle, for soloists, 2 pianos, harmonium & choir
Rossini orchestrated his "Petite messe solennelle" of 1864 in order, he wrote, to stop "Mr. Sax and his saxophones" and "Mr. Berlioz with other giants from the modern orchestra" from stepping in. Nevertheless, he is said to have preferred the work's original version, for eight choral singers, four soloists, two pianos, and a harmonium. Various versions for the original forces have lately appeared. Each has its advantages, and the main one of this version by British conductor Robert King and his King's Consort is its attempt at absolute authenticity -- the performance uses pianos and a harmonium of the period (the harmonium is actually a bit wan), and the singers pronounce the words of the Latin mass in a manner claimed to have been the norm for Paris in the 1860s. It's a bit disconcerting to hear the vowel "u" in "benedictus" pronounced in its French pursed-lips way, but you get used to it. The sound design is perfect: the work was written to be sung in a music room of a mansion, and thus the atmosphere should be and is both close and loud. King says in his notes that his ears had never rung before like they did after these performances, which is what should happen if an operatic soprano is standing right next to you, going full bore. (Absolute authenticity, however, might require some unacceptable sacrifice; the work may have been one of the last composed with the voice of the castrato in mind.) The eight-voice choir delivers the colorful, dramatic, and yet somehow personal quality of Rossini's writing excitingly. Soprano and alto soloists Carolyn Sampson and Hilary Summers blend beautifully and have voices of just the right size for the work, but tenor Andrew Tortise in the Domine Deus section misses the Rossinian lilt of the melody. King claims that the pianissimo dynamic markings call for a performance that avoids operatic mannerisms, but the tense quality the music has here doesn't seem in line with the composer's intentions. In general, King's tempos are quick, and pianists Gary Cooper and Matthew Halls get into the spirit with a lively, rhythmic approach. The King's Singers are in tune with the dramatic strokes in Rossini's music, such as the repetition of the word "Credo" (I believe) during some of the textually lengthier sections of the Nicene Creed. It's entirely possible to imagine this unique mass being sung in a more Italianate way, but those pleased by a rather dry approach and wanting to hear something of how the work sounded in its time should hear this reading. AMG's copy of the disc had annoying outbursts of static (there was one just short of a minute and 45 seconds into the Kyrie), but this was presumably a problem with the individual pressing.