An ability to blend tradition with innovation has been key to Riccardo Chailly's success. With  the Concertgebouw and Gewandhaus orchestras, he explored core repertoires but also charted new territory. More recently at La Scala, he has conducted Puccini operas historically associated with the theatre but in versions that draw on the latest scholarship. Now Chailly has turned to a piece that will appeal to La Scala's penchant for works of the ottocento but is an entirely new venture. Appearing for his second programme in a week, Chailly initiated the Messa per Rossini at the temple of Italian music.

Riccardo Chailly © Teatro alla Scala
Riccardo Chailly
© Teatro alla Scala

The work is unlikely to become a symphonic staple, but is interesting both for its novelty and the light it sheds on some 19th-century bywaters. It was masterminded by Verdi to commemorate the first anniversary of Rossini's death, and was forged in 1869 from single-movement submissions by Italian composers that are rarely cited today. (For various reasons the better-known Boito, Ponchielli and Mercadante did not make the cut.) Following the cancellation of its première in the wake of much organisational wrangling, the work fell into obscurity and was not rediscovered until 1986. Its first ever performance had to wait until two years later.

A sizeable contingent of curious musicologists and critics gathered for the Milan première, and it was gifted a performance with insights to offer. The opening Requiem e Kyrie by Antonio Buzzolla, with its rumbling lower strings, aching violins and shadowy homophonous choir that breaks into patches of light, bears more than a passing resemblance to the corresponding movement in Verdi's Messa da Requiem that was composed five years later. Here, Chailly coaxed a sound of smouldering intensity interspersed with moments of fluidity, and a fugal section on the words Kyrie eleison was made to snap, crackle and send shivers down the spine. In the following Dies irae by Antonio Bazzini, a wall of sound from the choir  was peppered tangy interjections from fanfare trumpets.

The <i>Messa per Rossini</i> at La Scala © Teatro alla Scala
The Messa per Rossini at La Scala
© Teatro alla Scala

One of the best sections in this weighty 13-movement work is a restless Ingemisco by Alessandro Nini, which pitches a dramatically supplicant tenor against a misty backdrop from swirling strings and murmuring choir. Tenor Giorgio Berrugi, a former prize-winning clarinettist, paired rare musicality with winning theatricality and displayed an excitingly open, solid sound. In the Agnus Dei by Enrico Petrella, mezzo Véronica Simeoni spun a gleaming legato over the orchestra's rippling accompaniment, while the trio of male soloists (Berrugi plus baritone Simone Piazzola and bass Riccardo Zanellato) interwove their lines beautifully in the dignified Lux aeterna by Teodulo Mabellini.

But Verdi's concluding Libera me provides the biggest thrills. The exhilarating sense of finality is surely partly a result of the music's familiarity – it is after all a prototype for the corresponding movement in Verdi's Messa da Requiem – but the extent to which this movement is a cut above the rest for sheer quality and drama is also undeniable. Maria José Siri was appropriately theatrical in her hurried recitation of the text's opening lines, and the choir mysterious in its hushed responses. That was before it launched into the main body of the work with electrifying vigour. Italy's forgotten mass has made it into La Scala history.