Though Rossini’s name is synonymous with 19th-century comic opera, his contribution to sacred music is not inconsiderable; a sizeable collection of masses, hymns and cantatas reach the pinnacle of their popularity in two works that still make an entertaining evening in the concert hall or church. The first is the Stabat Mater of 1832 (revised 1841), and the second is the Petite Messe Solennelle of 1863 (revised 1867). Premièred on 14 March 1864 at the home of Louise, comtesse de Pillet-Will in Paris, the original scoring of the latter work consisted of twelve solo voices, two pianos and a harmonium, and given the pleasure of several recordings of this version, we may assume that that première must have been both delightful and hilarious. Fearing that the work might be overlooked after his death, Rossini arranged the score for orchestra and it was first heard in this version a few months after his death in Paris, 1869. As one might expect from Rossini, and as one finds with the sacred works of composers generally affiliated with opera (Verdi’s Messa di Requiem and Puccini’s Messa di Gloria, for example), the music has a distinctively dramatic flavour and for this reason Rossini’s score is certainly not small and anything but solemn. Rossini, like any good Catholic boy, prayed:

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Dear God, here it is, finished, this poor little mass. Is it sacred music that I have written or damned music? I was born for opera buffa, as you know well! Little technique, a little heart, that’s all. Be blessed then and grant me Paradise.

Naturally, given the size of the Liverpool Philharmonic Chorus and the availability of a good orchestra, it is the latter version that was presented at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall this week. The rather modest opulence of Philharmonic Hall’s 1930s art deco interior with its nude muses made an amusing contribution to the atmosphere that surrounds this inimitable work, and yet I can’t help but think that the piece would have been better transported 100 yards or so up the road to Liverpool’s vast Anglican cathedral, where Rossini’s absurdly amusing score would have been allowed to float around that enormous stone edifice.

Directed by Baroque specialist Ottavio Dantone, the jaunty orchestral introduction of the Kyrie did get off to a slightly hesitant start with the string section taking a moment to settle into Rossini’s syncopated and creeping opening. This unsettling start, however, lasted only a few bars, and at the staggered, slow entrance of the chorus a firm foundation was laid for the remainder of the performance. The orchestral opening of the Gloria was especially impressive with regards to the string section – though perhaps not with the warmest of tones, the togetherness of the section was staggering, with every demisemiquaver absolutely in time. The Gloria also introduces the soloists, each of whom possessed a warm, robust voice entirely suitable to the demands of the music.

Tenor Daniele Zanfardino (replacing scheduled tenor Yijie Shi) received the first extended solo in Rossini’s hysterical Domine Deus, throughout which the fire and brimstone of the King of Heaven is naught but a jolly aria suitable for the comic hero in any of his operas. A taxing tessitura was handled excellently by Zanfardino who, though perhaps a little underpowered in this particular acoustic, sang with well-placed fervour. A duet for the soprano and mezzo and a beautiful bass solo followed, before the chorus were finally reintroduced into the work with Rossini’s lightening fast Cum Sancto Spiritu – incredible diction, harmonic and melodic strength abounded in every section as the chorus responded sensitively to each other whilst still blending excellently, allowing each fugal entry to reach fruition in the movement’s magnificent absurdity – if this was ever actually performed as part of a liturgical service cathedral walls would shake and crumble. Nonetheless, the end of this movement was greeted with a scream of “BRAVO!” and unanimous applause – personally I was beaming with amusement and, following with the score on my lap, would gladly have joined in.

Petite soprano soloist Marina Bucciarelli was well prepped for what is effectively the heroine’s aria; Dantone’s lilting cellos, drunk on portamento, set the mood of Bucciarelli’s bel canto Crucifixus and, despite a little wavering of vocal quality and vibrato, the conviction of performance was first rate. The Preludio religioso for solo organ (originally added at the last minute to perform the double function of showcasing the harmonium and giving the singers a break!) was stylistically played with notes inégales (notes of equal length played unequally) by Bernard Robertson before further energetic choral outbursts cemented the opinion that they were working extraordinarily hard – though the score is amusing and entertaining, Rossini does go on a bit and his choral fugues needn’t be quite so long – and so choral stamina continued to be engaging though the unaccompanied Sanctus did lose pitch. The closing Agnus Dei showed off the rich and fruity tone of mezzo Anna Bonitatibus especially, whose conviction of performance was dramatic, engaging and well balanced against orchestra and chorus.

Ultimately this was an extremely entertaining evening amounting to a great performance of an absurdly brilliant work with super soloists and an excellently directed and rehearsed chorus and orchestra.