It is the first version of Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle, with piano and harmonium, that the Flemish Radio Choir and their artistic director Hervé Niquet chose to perform at the Concertgebouw earlier this week. This is rare enough to be worthy of praise in itself. I have a soft spot for this version and have always found strange that it is far less often performed than the later, orchestrated one. Last Thursday’s fine performance demonstrated the originality and impact of this more intimate version, and that if the adjective “petite” suits it better,  it certainly still isn’t solemn.

Rossini originally composed his “little mass” for the wife of Alexis de Pillet-Will, a Parisian count and banker. It was first performed in 1864 in the private chapel of their Paris mansion. This explains probably why he scored it for two pianos and a harmonium, instruments that may well have been readily available in a 19th century patrician family home. Thursday night’s performance made use of just one grand piano, and the sound of François Saint-Yves’ harmonium might have sounded more prominent than it usually is.

In 1867, Rossini would eventually adapt this work for a large orchestra, explicitly to avoid it being orchestrated after his death by ”Mr Sax and his saxophones”or “Mr Berlioz and other giants from the modern orchestra”. I have a strong preference for the original version because I find that the piano emphasizes best the odd particularities of the piece: the strangely dancing beginning of the Kyrie, the recurrent fugue-like passages and, unexpectedly in the middle of the mass, this “preludio religioso”, an instrumental interlude for piano, that is not usually part of the liturgy. The young French pianist David Violi played this “prelude” with gusto, emphasizing its dramatic, almost romantic, character.

In his original manuscript, Rossini wrote “Twelve singers of the three genders men, women and castrati will suffice to perform it [the mass], that is to say: eight for the choirs and four for the solos, in total twelve cherubs ”. With its 24 members, the Flemish Radio Choir counted quite a few more cherubs. They stood scattered around the podium in mixed groups of four and their voices blended beautifully. Following the elegant and vivacious gestures of conductor Hervé Niquet, almost dancing in his red shoes, they sang with focused tone and the wide range of dynamics that is essential to bring out the thrilling impact in this work.

The performance benefited also from a fine and homogeneous team of soloist. Fabio Trümpy boasts an elegant and bright tenor. He sang the Domine Deus in a lyrical and almost meditative manner, when other tenors might overdo it and make an operatic showpiece of it. In Quoniam to solus sanctus, Thomas Oliemans’ warm and even baritone unveiled a strong and seductive dark timbre at the bottom of the range. Gal James’ expressive singing gave all the dramatic dimension required for O salutaris hostia. I ideally would have preferred a darker contralto sound and more contrast in colours between mezzo and soprano, but Rachel Frenkel’s lyric mezzo has an appealing youthful timbre, and the two voices actually married interestingly in Qui tollis peccata mundi.

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