That Rossini was a wag. The master of the bon mot, you suspect he probably had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he entitled his 1864 choral work the Petite Messe Solenelle. It is neither little nor solemn, lasting around 80 minutes, full of jaunty accompaniments. Rossinian good humour abounds and, in a spirited rendition by Wimbledon Choral Society, that good humour spilled across the platform of Cadogan Hall and into the audience. Even a labrador, snoozing gently a few rows in front, sniffed the air appreciatively and thumped his tail.

Gioachino Rossini © Etienne Carjat (1865)
Gioachino Rossini
© Etienne Carjat (1865)
The Petite Messe Solenelle was described by the composer (photographed right in 1865 with a wicked twinkle in his eye) as "the last of my péchés de vieillesse" (sins of old age). In another witty aside, Rossini described the choral forces required – just 12 singers in the original version – as “three sexes, men, women and castrati will suffice for its execution”. The gentlemen of Wimbledon could breathe easy and avoid the blade, as around 140 singers (no castrati required) were assembled for this early evening performance. They were supported by the accompaniment of two pianos and a harmonium, as originally scored by the composer before he succumbed to a full orchestral arrangement. The jogtrot for pianos at the outset of the Kyrie eleison, interspersed with harmonium – wheezing its perky interjections like an asthmatic organ – is pure Rossini. One half-expected Don Basilio to pop his head from among the basses and deliver “La Calunnia” from Barbiere. Pianists Michael Higgins and Nicola Rose and harmonium player Richard Pearce had great fun.

The WCS was having great fun too, epitomised by one of the more senior sopranos; she didn’t give conductor Neil Ferris much of a glance, but sang with gusto and a beaming smile. Where some amateur choruses can give the impression of dutiful performers, how heartening it was to see singers of all ages who clearly adore singing. Intonation wobbled early on, but this soon settled, with both volume and a great sense of presence in the Cum Sancto Spiritu.

The professional soloists did a sterling job. Experienced soprano Claire Seaton sang with appealing tone, while Anna Harvey’s soft-grained mezzo blended with her beautifully in the Qui tollis peccata mundi. Harvey projected well in the Agnus Dei, long phrases spun warmly. Baritone Matthew Sprange, once past the treacherously low F in the opening phrase of Et in terra pax, sang with firm tone and attention to dynamic detail. Tenor Ben Thapa was less disciplined in this respect, the Domine Deus (another Rossinian toe-tapper) delivered too aggressively for comfort. Ferris was a watchful conductor, shepherding his forces with plenty of smiles. His tempi were sensibly chosen – lively without being unwieldy for the size of his choir.

Before the concluding Sanctus and Agnus Dei, Rossini inserted a Prélude religieux, often performed on the piano but here performed mostly on the harmonium. It rather fitted the distinct impression of Rossini being not entirely serious. Religion behind a comedy mask… and all the better for it.