Review / Small, solemn mass this wasn’t!

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ANU Chorale Society. Photo by Peter Hislop. 
THE program note was right; Rossini’s “Petite Messe Solennelle”, or “Small, Solemn Mass”, is neither small nor solemn. It went well over an hour and the music is typical Rossini – mostly bright and rhythmic, even with the tongue occasionally in the cheek.

Rossini, who had not done much composition for 30 years, described the work as “the last of my sins of old age”.

Nonetheless it has all the liturgical elements of a Mass, even to the Latin movement names and lyrics. It also has some marvellous melodies, harmonies, and dynamics, as well as substantial solos for the four soloists.

Of note, for this performance, was Dr Anthony Smith, who soldiered through the lengthy accompaniment superbly, with solid confidence and precision in beautiful empathy to the soloists and choristers, albeit on an electronic keyboard. An acoustic piano would have provided a much better foundation for this quite lovely work.

Indeed, the richer tone of an acoustic piano might have helped to lift what, in general, was a somewhat subdued and tentative performance.

There was mixed success in the solos, but soprano, Rachael Duncan, shone through with beautiful tone and clear diction, effortlessly dealing with the quite large pitch intervals. At times her heavy vibrato made her sound a little too intense for the lightness of Rossini’s writing, but this did not detract from her lovely singing voice.

Alto, Maartje Sevenster, too, gave quite a creditable performance, especially given she sang with a straight tone, which makes the task of landing on the right pitch more critical. Her singing in the Agnus Dei, right at the end, was especially lovely, and she blended with Duncan beautifully in the Qui tollis.

Tenor, Charles Hudson, made a fair fist of his role, although he struggled a little with the vocal range and interval jumps.

Bass, Mark Chapman, struggled, too, seeming unable to immerse himself in his role confidently. Singing with a straight tone, he frequently landed shy of the required pitch. But when in combination with other soloists, he blended well, giving nice harmonies and tonal balance.

The choir, under the attentive direction of Lizzy Collier, had a few moments of hesitant entries and uncertain parts.

But these were far outweighed by some great beauty, particularly when singing a cappella, with superb phrasing, balance of tone, and a well-developed ability to keep to the pitch. The Agnus Dei at the very end was especially lovely, floating as it did on the superb acoustic in the vast space that is the Great Hall of University House.

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