When, in 1864, the Count and Countess Pillet-Will consecrated the new chapel in their opulent Paris home, we can assume that the occasion was not particularly solemn. Or if it was, in calling on the elderly Gioacchino Rossini, they picked the wrong composer.

The Petite Messe Solennelle is the ultimate musical misnomer. It is in no way “Petite”, running to around 80 minutes in length, with a wealth of decoration and variation on a cornucopia of melody. It is certainly not “Solemn”: texts which you might expect to be the subject of awe-stricken reverence are treated with a spring in the step which often veers towards the jaunty. And while it follows the form and Latin text of a mass, it’s only occasionally that you discern any linkage to standard liturgical music: this is unquestionably the output of an opera composer sticking to what he does best.

© BBC / Chris Christodoulou
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou

To present the work to us in the best possible context, the BBC Proms made it part of their “Proms at…” series, taking it to the glorious surroundings of the Chapel of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. Originally built by Sir Christopher Wren, gutted by fire and rebuilt in neo-classical style in the late eighteenth century, the Chapel provides both rare elegance and the most flattering of acoustics. When the audience was asked to applaud as a pre-broadcast sound check, the decibel level was extraordinary, combined with a warm resonance which didn’t linger too long.

The BBC Singers are 24 in number – double that of the original 12 in Paris – and the arrangement chosen is the one of the first edition: choir, SATB soloists, piano and harmonium. The opening Kyrie shows off all of these at their best. Iain Farrington’s piano starts gently and accented, Richard Pearce’s harmonium contributes little operatic fills, the choral voices are precisely together and – the female voices in particular – show beauty of timbre. But there’s no questioning the rather cheerful feel of it all: it this is a plea to God for mercy, it’s from a supplicant who is in no doubt whatsoever that the mercy will be granted. And confronted with such bel canto delights, how could God possibly resist?

James Platt © BBC / Chris Christodoulou
James Platt
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou
For the Gloria, the music becomes more celebratory than cheerful and we are joined by the soloists. It’s a high quality quartet, of which the most impressive comes first: bass James Platt intones “et in terra pax” with unwavering solidity of support underpinning a rich harmonic texture. His “magnum gloriam tuam” fills the room with its strength. Soprano Elizabeth Watts and Kathryn Rudge interweave beautifully in “Qui tollis peccata mundi”. Tenor Peter Auty’s “Domine Deus” has clarity and vitality, the essential qualities for something with a piano backing that starts almost like a ragtime piece.

Kathryn Rudge © BBC / Chris Christodoulou
Kathryn Rudge
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou
As the work continues, there is an ever flowing series of somewhat eclectic highlights – warmth and purity of line and phrasing from Watts in the Credo, with a finely judged pianissimo on “sepultus est”, a proper liturgical fugue in the Credo, an exceptionally operatic “Hosanna in excelsis” in the Sanctus, and a closing Agnus Dei from Rudge which may not match Watts for power but she displays excellent control, lovely timbre and plenty of fervent emotion. Throughout, David Hill kept everything accurately shaped and moving along nicely.

The end of the Credo (and with it the “main” part of the mass) remains irrepressibly bouncy - the music  could happily close the act of an opera buffa). There follows a rather Beethovenian piano prelude – although even here, a minor to major shift restores good cheer to proceedings. The O salutaris Hostia starts distinctly waltz-like.

This is lovely music and it was beautifully played and sung in the most congenial surroundings. I have no idea what to make of it all – it’s certainly not a religious work in any way that I can get my head round – but it made for a splendid afternoon out.

Old Royal Naval College © David Karlin
Old Royal Naval College
© David Karlin
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