“Good God—behold completed this poor little Mass,” wrote Rossini in the preface to his Petite Messe solennelle. “Is it indeed sacred music [la musique sacrée] that I have just written, or merely some damned music [la sacré musique]? You know well, I was born for comic opera.” It’s not hard to spot the traces of greasepaint in this “solemn little mass”, from the tenor’s jaunty “Domine Deus” to those trademark sing-song woodwinds and an interpolated “O salutaris hostia” for soprano, which sounds remarkably like a grand operatic scena. But for all the composer’s attempts at self- deprecation, the Petite Messe solennelle is a work of refinement and serenity, whose theatrical touches, if not always strictly solemn, are essential to its uplifting character.
From the opening of the Kyrie, with its finely spun tempi and pellucid choral singing, this new release establishes itself as an arresting account. Pappano conducts with a meticulous hand and a masterful sense of pacing, allowing the Mass’s expansive and contemplative moments ample space to unfold without denying its effusive side and sprightly rhythms.
The quartet of soloists is well chosen and balanced. Soprano Marina Rebeka particularly impresses, with incisive tone and firm grasp of the text, while Sara Mingardo’s velvety contralto brings real poignancy to her music, especially the final “Agnus Dei”. Tenor Francesco Meli is appealingly and authentically Italianate, even if his sweeping portamenti could stand to be toned down on occasion, and bass Alex Esposito sings with solid focus, doing his best to find variety of colour in the lengthy “Quoniam tu solus sanctus”.
It is the redoubtable forces of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, though, who set the seal of excellence on this recording. The choir’s singing is seamless and energised, with some gorgeous high pianissimi from the sopranos, and the orchestra plays with tight cohesion and bold strokes of colour. The Mass is presented here in Rossini’s later orchestration rather than his initial scoring for piano, harmonium and a chorus of only twelve, and while some aficionados will doubtless continue to prefer the salon- scale original, which has also been recorded several times, such superlative playing and singing certainly make a compelling case for the expanded version. Mingling operatic sensibilities with a reverent sense of occasion, Pappano, the Accademia and four superb soloists take Rossini’s Petite Messe solennelle just as seriously – and just as joyously – as it deserves.