Petite Messe Solennelle – Rossini, St Mary’s Church, Horsham
For his first concert with Christ’s Hospital Choral Society – which rehearses at Christ’s Hospital, but draws its singers from Horsham and the local area – the school’s new Director of Music, Alex Hodgkinson, chose a work which the choir had never tackled before, Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle. A packed St Mary’s Church was the perfect venue for the piece, which Rossini wrote in old age, 34 years after his last opera, with sincere religious conviction, although the Pope apparently refused to sanction performance in church in composer’s lifetime. The 1860s were times when female soprano and contralto solo parts, and Rossini’s dislike of boy trebles in a chorus, made a hearing in church impossible.
Alex Hodgkinson drew a fine performance from his team of soloists, the chorus, and the piano and organ accompanists. From the opening Kyrie, it was clear that the choir were singing with a fine sense of phrasing, and responding sensitively to Rossini’s dynamic markings. The big choral fugues at the close of the Gloria and Credo held no terrors for them, and in their unaccompanied entry in the final Agnus Dei they recaptured the rapt atmosphere of the opening, with some genuinely beautiful sustained singing, before ending the work in a triumphant blaze.
There is nothing Petite about the demands Rossini makes of his soloists, and the strong team of soprano Augusta Herbert, alto Martha McLorinan, tenor Benjamin Vonberg-Clark and bass Edward Jones all made the most of their moments in the limelight, to the clear delight of the audience. But I was also hugely impressed by the togetherness they achieved in the various duets, trios and quartets, particularly when accompanied by both piano and organ (a word of appreciation here for organist Peter Dutton, who was seated a good 20ft away from pianist and soloists, but was totally part of the ensemble, despite playing from distant and buried keyboards). Pianist Tom Primrose gave a fine account of the extended, Bachian Preludio Religioso which would have been background music for the Offertory in a church performance.
This was, without any reservation (and how rarely can one say that of performances by amateur choruses) a performance which gave genuine pleasure from first note to last. It was good to hear Christ’s Hospital Choral Society in such good voice, and clearly enjoying working with their new musical director.