Rossini Petite messe solennelle
Though Rossini would have loved the Labeque sisters—how they would have graced and enlivened his famous samedi soirs in Paris in the 1860s!—he would have been decidedly nervous about his Petite messe solennelle, the last substantial sin of his remarkable old age, being entrusted in part to boys' voices. ''Sour and out of tune'' was his verdict on the voices of the boys of Pesaro, Bologna, Naples, and Paris. Indeed, he spent a substantial portion of time in his last years lobbying the Vatican to lift its ban on the use of women's voices in church. To no avail: Pius IX was deaf even to the pleas of the Swan of Pesaro. Yet if any choir could be guaranteed to make Rossini change his mind it would be a choir like that of King's. The lambent sound and impeccable musicianship of the King's boys would have delighted Rossini as surely as they must delight anyone wise enough to invest in this fine new HMV recording. The decision to record this work with the Labeque Sisters and the King's College Choir is itself something of an inspiration. The performance throws new light on the work and the popularity of the performers may tempt some non-Rossinians to investigate one of the most remarkable of all the great nineteenth-century choral masterworks; certainly, anyone who has enjoyed the choral music of Haydn, Faure, or Poulenc—composers to whom, Janus-like, Rossini is most closely affiliated here—will be moved and fascinated by what the Petite messe solennelle has to offer.
The King's style pays handsome dividends in the Palestrina-like ''Christe eleison'', in the glorious double fugue, ''Cum Sancto Spiritu'', the singing wonderfully pure and buoyant, and in the Benedictus, exquisitely phrased and sung. The recording was not made in King's College Chapel where voices, pianos and harmonium would in all probability have been defeated by the famous acoustic, but in the Music Faculty of the University and at EMI's No. 1 Abbey Road Studio. Thus, like Karajan's famous HMV recording of Bach's B minor Mass, this is very much a Tale of Two Cities, though two cities, Cambridge and London, which Rossini knew at first hand. (He visited them both in 1824.) I wondered at times whether the comparatively recessed sound of the choir and the comparatively forward sound of the soloists made for an entirely happy impression, number by number; but it's not a point I would want to labour.
HMV's soloists are generally admirable, without always scaling the heights achieved by Lovaas, the younger Fassbaender, Schreier and Fischer-Dieskau in the famous Sawallisch performance recorded live at the Baumburg monastery in July 1972 and now newly available on CD from Eurodisc. Nicolai Gedda is in remarkably fine fettle in his sixtieth year; and no one sings the Agnus Dei, with its chilling piano preface (shades of the last song of Die Winterreise) and its equally Schubertian swaying ostinato, better than Fassbaender. Lucia Popp is very fine, though less moving in the profoundly disturbing ''Crucifixus'' than Sawallisch's Kari Lovaas. Dimitri Kavrakos on HMV is more than adequate though, as a Rossini interpreter, he lacks length and elegance of line, and it would be idle to pretend that he makes as much of the ''Quoniam'' as Sawallisch's Fischer-Dieskau, whose compassionate and dramatic reading, gloriously sung with a Lieder singer's art, turns fine music into unforgettable music.
In this kind of company, the recent Philips set under Scimone, now appearing on CD for the first time, is rather outmanoeuvred. Scimone's direction is less commanding than Sawallisch's, less refined and imaginative than Cleobury's, and the use of a largish body of singers in a fairly hefty acoustic is unsatisfactory when set alongside the beautifully scaled singing of Sawallisch's small, 12-voice choir of the sheer charm and sophistication of the King's choir.
The King's performance is accompanied with verve and sensitivity by the Labeque sisters. At times Sawallisch, a first-rate pianist, adopts phrasing which is dramatically more pointed and immediate; he also allows a much stronger voice to the harmonium which is treated very apologetically indeed by the HMV team. And it's here that we can see the essential differences between the Baumburg and Cambridge performances. By and large, Sawallisch's is the more commanding; the phrasing is more intense, the ear for bizarre colour more acute, the sense of living involvement with this extraordinary music the more pronounced. The very start of the Kyrie seems stranger and more keenly felt in Sawallisch's performance—in texture, key, and rhythmic motioning—making for a more telling release into uninhibited song at fig. 2. The tension between faith and doubt, innocence and experience, or what you will, is more keenly felt here than it is in the singing of the sweet-toned King's trebles. But if the Sawallisch performance is as good as we are likely to hear this side of the Paradise to which Rossini begs to be admitted in his famous preface, there's a case for suggesting that the King's performance comes closer to realizing what in Paradise itself, a performance of this remarkable work may sound like! Rossini-lovers will want, and rejoice in, both.'