Notes and Editorial Reviews
The two historically outstanding recordings of Rossini's Petite messe solennelle, Sawallisch's on Eurodisc/BMG and Cleobury's on EMI, both take up two CDs. Single-CD versions tend to be either rushed, like Corboz's on Erato/WEA, or cut, which is the case with Mason's set with Combattimento on Meridian, a version that also suffers from rather a lot of redundant and stylistically inadmissible ornamentation. On the new Conifer recording, the text is complete, and though some of Simon Halsey's tempos are decidedly spirited, the virtuosity and refinement of the
CBSO Chorus's singing are never in doubt. This seems to be rather more than a 12-voice version. The choral image is full-bodied and also discreetly distant. But in the
Great Hall of the University of Birmingham this doesn't compromise clarity; it merely adds bloom to the sound. In the ebullient "Cum Sancto Spiritu", Halsey is as quick as Scimone on Philips, but where Scimone's Ambrosian Opera Chorus, closely recorded, seems rather hectoring, with choppy rhythms, the CBSO Chorus has a King's-like fluency and grace, and great clarity. I was a little surprised to hear the redoubtable John Tomlinson as the bass soloist. He sings imposingly, and has the makings of a full Rossini trill, but his presence in the ensembles can seem a shade burdensome in so courtly a musical context. On paper, Gandolfi's solo team on Decca is the most internationally expert—Freni, Terrani, Pavarotti and Ruggero Raimondi, no less—but in practice they are entirely the wrong kind of singers for this music. By contrast, Sawallisch's team for his live 1972 Baumburg Monastery performance is exemplary; Kari LOvaas and Brigitte Fassbaender sing with great intensity and Peter Schreier and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recognize the work's chamber-music scale as well as its surprising emotional range. Conifer's Anne-Marie Owens is very fine in the "Agnus Dei", and, as always in this kind of music, Helen Field's contribution is a delight throughout, though LOvaas's singing of the "Crucifixus" remains unsurpassed in its grieving intensity, particularly in Rossini's symbolically excruciating series of rising minor thirds at the heart of the meditation.
The other distinguishing feature of the new Conifer version is the playing of the pianists, David Nettle and Richard Markham. They have the advantage of a new edition, due from Oxford University Press in 1991, in which the editor, Nancy Fleming, has gone back to the autograph manuscript and thus bypassed some of the compromises we are used to from performing editions in which the two piano parts are derived from the orchestral version of 1869. (Conifer dub their release: "Original Version, First Recording".) It is easy to exaggerate the difference between what we have here and what we are used to on previous recordings. More important is the pianists' stylish and pertinent realization of Rossini's distinctively fine-grained piano manner. The "Preludio religioso" is touched off at a properly flowing Andantino mosso. The instruments themselves, a pair of Steinways, have been well chosen whilst Peter King is playing a two-manual Mustel harmonium.
Clearly, if you don't want the expense of a twoCD set—Sawallisch's, or Cleobury's with the King's College Choir, the Labeque sisters, and soloists led by Lucia Popp—this new version would be the one to go for. It is by no means flawless in the solo vocal department, but in all other respects it is a most distinguished and agreeable account of this intensely absorbing work.
-- Gramophone [10/1990]
Works on This Recording
Petite Messe solennelle by Gioachino Rossini
Helen Field (Soprano),
Anne-Marie Owens (Alto),
Edmund Barham (Tenor),
John Tomlinson (Bass),
David Nettle (Piano),
Richard Markham (Piano),
Peter King (Harmonium)
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus
Written: 1863; Italy
Length: 77 Minutes 31 Secs.
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