Rossini, Petite Messe Solennelle
With the Zürcher Konzertchor & ZKO
Tonhalle Zurich, 2015-05-23
2016-08-04 — Brushed up for better readability
This was one of the rare occasions to experience a live concert with Rossini’s “Petite Messe Solennelle“, performed at the Tonhalle Zurich:
Once he finished his opera “Guillaume Tell” in 1829, at the age of 37, Gioacchino Rossini (1792 – 1868) decided to stop writing operas. He essentially retracted from active participation in music life, even though his popularity as an opera composer at that time was immense. Rossini held up to his decision to retire. He limited his activities as a composer to writing a few smaller and some spiritual works, such as the “Stabat Mater” (1831 / 1841), or the “Petite Messe Solennelle” in 1864, which he ironically referred to as the last of his “Péchés de vieillesse” (sins of old age). This latter work is what we heard in this concert at the Zurich Tonhalle.
In its original form, this composition was written for 4 soloists, choir, two pianos and harmonium. The title of the composition, “Petite Messe Solennelle“, may have referred to this small setting. More likely, it may actually have been ironic: it is a contradiction in itself, as the term “solemn mass” (“missa solemnis“) was used in contrast to “missa brevis“, indicating a mass in which parts of the text could be repeated at will. A “missa brevis” (short mass) strictly featured a single reading of the liturgical text. In other words: a “Messe solennelle” by definition is a rich, extended liturgic composition. The impression of irony in the title of the work is confirmed by a look at the annotations in the score, e.g.: the “Credo” carries the annotation “Allegro Cristiano (1/4 = 120)”. I have never otherwise encountered a “Christian Allegro“!
During the composer’s lifetime, there were only two public performances of this work, both with a small choir of 15 students. The composer only attended the second of these performances, turning pages for the first pianist. Rossini did not push for or promote additional performances of the composition. That’s partly because of an edict by the pope, which made it forbidden for mixed choirs to appear in churches.
The Orchestral Version
However, Rossini obviously knew about the value of this composition (or was this just his vanity?). He wanted to avoid that after his death other composers would trash his work by orchestrating it using the very latest instrumental / orchestral features. So, in 1867, three years after the original composition, he created an orchestral version himself. But he explicitly stated that this was not to be performed during his lifetime. Rossini died 1868, the orchestral version premiered in February 1869.
The second version, with orchestra and organ, rather than just two pianos and a harmonium, was played at the Zurich Tonhalle. It was sung by the Zürcher Konzertchor (founded 1962 by Edmond de Stoutz, as a complement to his Zürcher Kammerorchester), conducted by the young chorus master, André Fischer. The Zürcher Kammerorchester (ZKO) did the accompaniment. The composition entails a number of challenges for performances. There are technical challenges for the singers, but also achieving acoustic balance may be problematic. In addition, there is the question of how operatic one may or must perform this mass: it does not deny its ties to Rossini’s opera compositions.
This work covers an extreme dynamic scope, from frequent pppp up to fff — a range which is hard to cover for a big amateur choir such as the Zürcher Konzertchor, especially if the accompaniment encompasses a fairly big orchestra with a rich brass section and two harps.
On to the actual performance: a good deal of the conductor’s interaction through vivid, imaginative gestures was with the choir. Yet, the choir might have required even more attention (more preparation?): the second entrance of the sopranos (at “2″ in the Kyrie) happened two beats early. Not a promising start for a demanding concert! Luckily, this was the only such incident during that concert. André Fischer mostly selected natural tempi. But quite obviously, he chose a moderate pace where the abilities of an amateur choir demanded it.
Actually, the first part of the evening (Kyrie & Gloria) only featured two pieces with choir. The Kyrie does not offer particular difficulties (other than starting at the right time!). However, the big fugue “Cum sancto Spiritu” at the end of the Gloria is very virtuosic. It therefore was performed at a moderate pace, which made it sound rather heavy and sometimes too uniform, lacking drama. The sometimes stomping orchestral accompaniment reinforced this impression.
For its size, the choir often sounded a bit dim, its diction was mediocre. In this case, though, the text should be known to most people in the audience: many will have heard what their imagination made them believe. The amateur choir also showed its limitation in the dynamics, particularly at the soft end. An occasional softer, but projecting p or sotto voce down to pppp (with proper vocal support) would have enhanced the performance substantially.
I really can’t complain about the orchestra, it showed presence, excellent sound and good transparency. My only minor objection is that in the “O salutaris hostia” there was too much portamento in the violins. For me, this feature is too worldly / mundane to use so prominently in a spiritual composition. Over the entire evening it was very interesting to watch the interplay between strings and the often prominent brass sound.
One more comment on the orchestra: for the accompaniment of the soloists, the conductor should have been holding back the orchestra a bit more — especially in vocal trios and quartets it sometimes was difficult to follow all solo voices.
The quartet of soloists was quite well-balanced. Clearly, Klaus Mertens was my favorite that evening, with his warm, full-bodied bass-baritone voice. I was fascinated by this voice already in his first appearance in the “Et in terra pax“, but his “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” was one of the peak moments that evening. When singing with other soloists, he provided a solid, carrying foundation.
The tenor, Vsevolod Grivnov, could not really compete with Mertens in terms of volume. His voice isn’t bad at all, but particularly in the “Domine Deus“, his vowels often sounded rather vulgar, too open, lacking all Italianità. He sounded focused on singing loud (marking the Heldentenor), hereby providing the “opera element” for the evening.
For me, a second highlight of that evening was the mezzosoprano Judith Schmid, with a full, sounding, warm timbre and volume that was an excellent fit for Klaus Mertens. She was rarely in danger of getting lost among the other voices. Her performance in the “Agnus Dei” made up for a lasting, big impression.
The fourth member of the quartet was the soprano Rachel Harnisch, another nice, carrying voice. It was nicely fitting in timbre and volume to Judith Schmid’s alto in the duet “Qui tollis“. And it was equally impressive in the “Crucifixus“, featuring a tonal range that rather suits a mezzosoprano.
Rossini’s “Petite Messe Solennelle” features a lengthy “Preludio religioso” (offertory) between the “Credo” and the “Sanctus“. In the original version, this is played by the harmonium alone, as accompaniment to the communion. Here, André Briel played it on the big Kleuker-Steinmeyer organ. To me, this often (if not in general) sounded too loud and central for a piece that is meant to accompany the mysteries of the transfiguration. At the same time, the piece (an artful, polyphonic composition) felt rather lengthy. Actually, I think that in the context of a concert (particularly in the profanity of a concert hall), this piece has no real function and feels rather like a foreign object.
Possible Drawbacks of the Orchestral Version
Compared to the original version, featuring a simple accompaniment of two pianos (a main part, a second one mainly for support & colla parte playing) and a harmonium, the orchestral version tends to lose momentum. It feels heavier, if not sometimes clumsy. In the original version, the pianos as “percussive element” play a major role in evoking / producing the typical “Rossini motorics”. Clearly, my personal favorite & preference is the original version with the small accompaniment. See also the second addendum below.
For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.
I really don’t want / mean to compare the concert performance with existing recordings. However, in this context I can’t resist pointing to my favorite recording of this composition. Actually, “favorite” is incorrect, as I have not really explored the market for alternative recordings of this composition. Back in the seventies, without knowing the composition, I spontaneously bought the following LP box:
The box featured Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle in its complete original version, for choir, four soloists, two pianos and harmonium. At the purchase, I hadn’t known the composition, but of course I knew the conductor and the soloists. The fact that there is no orchestra probably wasn’t apparent from the LP description. But back home, I immediately realized what kind of treasure I had acquired. In fact, I now think this is among the very few recordings that truly deserve the title “recordings of the century”.
I won’t discuss this recording from 1972 in detail here, but just add a spotty description. It features a hard-to-beat set of artists, all at the peak of their career and abilities, providing a really operatic performance of this composition (a setting such as the one in the concert almost inevitably leads to a more “spiritual” interpretation):
Direction, “Choir”, Accompaniment
- Wolfgang Sawallisch (1923 – 2013). He is not only a good conductor, but also an excellent pianist and accompanist, playing the principal piano part. Sawallisch is diligently driving the performance, with excellent tempo selections, full of drive, enthralling, with excellent agogics.
- The “choir” consists of the Münchner Vokalsolisten. That’s not a real choir, but merely a double-quartet of professional singers, naturally providing a stunning performance of the choral parts. Sure, one cannot expect “homogeneous sound” from the individual voices, with just merely two members each. But for a “semi-operatic” work, or at least an operatic view of Rossini’s mass, this is not prerequisite. More importantly, the small vocal ensemble has the virtuosity required for the demanding fugues. And it offers control in dynamics and expression that is clearly superior to what an “ordinary ” choir can achieve. And those tenors — invaluable!! The Münchner Vokalsolisten were prepared by Hans-Ludwig Hirsch, who is playing the second piano, mostly just colla parte and reinforcement for the choral parts.
- Reinhard Raffalt plays the harmonium. The instrument is Rossini’s explicit choice. It provides an interesting sound color / aspect to many parts of the mass. The harmonium (naturally) never dominates, but provides the perfect, solemn setting for the accompaniment of the communion in the “Preludio religioso“.
- Kari Lövaas (*1939), an impressive soprano: an excellent, dramatic voice with full volume over a vast range, reaching down into the mezzo range.
- Brigitte Fassbaender (*1939): I always liked her voice. But when I listen to her “Agnus Dei“, I get goosebumps, and I’m touched to tears. Can this be sung any more impressively, more intensely? A most desperate cry for forgiveness that to me has no equal!
- Peter Schreier (*1935): he is clearly more than a lyrical tenor. In this performance, his voice is close to that of a Heldentenor, simply brilliant, shining, projecting, and at the same time also lyrical!
- Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925 – 2012) was at the height of his career, not just with excellent sonority: he also delivered a masterfully reflected, thoughtful interpretation. His “Quoniam” is simply superb. On the other hand, he knows exactly how to dose his voice to fit perfectly into the soloists’ ensemble, e.g., in “Gratias agimus tibi” and “Et in terra pax“.
- Reinhard Raffalt at the harmonium. The instrument is Rossini’s explicit choice, providing an interesting sound color / aspect to many parts of the mass. It (naturally) never dominates, and it provides the perfect, solemn setting for the accompaniment of the communion in the “Preludio religioso“.
The language in this performance is the “Italian” pronunciation of Latin. One might state that most soloists and the choir lack Italianità in their voice. There is one exception, though: Peter Schreier really sings like an Italian operatic tenor. Or, at least, as close as any non-Latin tenor can ever get — excellent!
MP3-Version for Download
I haven’t listened to these LPs for well over 30 years, but I never forgot about this recording, which I must have listened to dozens of times. Independent of the above concert, I have lately been looking for this recording on CD, as I’m not even set up to listen to LPs right now. To my dismay it seems no longer available, except as “used”, and at sometimes outrageous prices. So, I kept watching… After the above concert performance, my daughter pointed me to a MP3-download of the CD version:
RCA / Sony BMG 404992 (MP3-Download, stereo); ℗ 1972 / © 1996
—Find CD(s) on amazon.com—
Given the concert experience, I could no longer resist and installed the downloads in my archive. And I’m in the seventh heaven again! The only little hiccup is that the “Preludio religioso” fell prey to the space restrictions of a single CD. One may debate the importance & value of that piece (see the comment on the concert above). Still, I would prefer a CD recording to be complete (one can always skip a section if one feels like, and on CDs this is even much easier than on LPs). Well, maybe some day I need to digitize that part of my LP set myself…
YouTube Version, Live
On top of that MP3-Download, my daughter discovered YouTube videos with exactly the CD performance (venue, soloists, accompaniment), except that this is a live concert recording, and I’m delighted to be able to watch these artists perform this piece. I have built a little playlist from the five available tracks:
The videos are definitely worth watching. The video quality is rather limited, though, and with the CD / MP3 downloads they share the restriction of not including the “Preludio religioso“. On the other hand, the sound quality is very reasonable for a YouTube video (especially a recording of that age!). Of course, the CD (not from the live performance) has the better, more balanced sound management, and also the piano sounds better. Even the tuning appears a tad better, at least as long as Sawallisch plays alone. Two pianos can never be matched perfectly, let alone when they are joined by the harmonium. In any case, I’m glad I have both the videos and the MP3-download (and the LPs in the backhand)!
In retrospect; I felt that I should add the following comment. It may appear unfair / unjust to compare the centennial recording with Wolfgang Sawallisch with the performance of an amateur choir, such as the one in the concert discussed above. However, note that I’m not comparing the two. In fact, on purpose I did not make any attempts to listen to the Sawallisch recording prior to the concert. Quite to the contrary: as mentioned, I hadn’t listened to that recording for well over 30 years. Sure, I had this in my mind, memory and heart. It is hard to forget such a performance.
I decided to take a fresh / naïve approach for the concert, especially, as I knew that I was going to hear the second, orchestrated version of the composition. It is only after attending the concert, and after having made up my mind about what to say about the concert that I turned to that historic recording — which, after all, I felt people should know about, whether or not they have attended the concert in Zurich.
Choir members will typically use an octavo-size vocal score, such as from Ricordi; for listeners interested in the notation, one of the following pocket scores should suffice, depending on the version played:
- Original version for soli, choir, piano and harmonium (Eulenburg) —Find pocket score on amazon.com—
- Orchestral version (Kalmus) —Find pocket score on amazon.com—