Simon Halsey

Rossini: Petite Messe Solennelle

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Rossini's Petite messe solennelle, first performed in 1864, exists in several versions, and Rossini buffs may be puzzled by the "Original version (OUP)--first recording" notation on the packaging. Rossini conceived the work for an accompaniment of two pianos and harmonium, orchestrating it later only at the insistence of others. Several recordings of the two-piano version exist, but this is the first one to use a new edition of the music issued by Oxford University Press. The new edition's innovations are small, centered mostly on corrections of defects in the composer's original manuscript. But the news here is simply that this 1990 release remains a well-above-average recording of the chamber version of the work, which is arguably superior to the full-orchestra version that's more generally performed. Anything but a rough draft for a later orchestral completion, this version reflects the dimensions of the music, which is mostly composed of arias. "Is it really sacred music or is it damned music that I have made?" Rossini wrote in a cheeky message to God at the end of the manuscript. "I was born for opera buffa, as you well know!" But the arias aren't of operatic scope, either; they were designed to fill a room rather than a concert hall. Every detail is in place in this reading from a restrained but highly musical and technically flawless group of British musicians. The freakish sound of the harmonium, which plays an orchestra role in tutti passages, isn't emphasized. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus (designated simply as CBSO Chorus on the packaging) sings cleanly and gracefully. The duo-piano team of David Nettle and Richard Markham (an established duo is probably superior in this work) have the precise ensemble necessary in these transparent textures. And top honors go to the soloists, especially soprano Helen Field, for their understanding of the intimate deceptively simple musical language of Rossini's old age. The unfussy engineering of the original Sony recording remains undisturbed in the 2010 reissue on Nettle and Markham's Netmark label. Strongly recommended.

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