It's akin to a cliche that Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle is neither little, solemn nor truly intended for liturgical use as a Mass. The overall tone is far from downbeat – anti-pompous, if you like. Yet the "Petite" bit has merit in that the work was scored for harmonium continuo and piano accompaniment alone – though Rossini did later arrange his Mass for full orchestra – so perhaps "Petite" can reference the instrumental resources required.
It was the stripped-down, original version that the Oxford University Chorus programmed at St Mary the Virgin on Thursday evening. For a suitable setting, doubtless Rossini had in mind the intimacy of a salon as he did for his other late works written after a 30 year composing lacuna. Whatever else St Mary the Virgin may be, with its 15th century Perpendicular nave, chancel, side aisles and extra-high roof, its vast spaces constitute no salon, and the task facing our choir and four soloists, three of them at the very beginning of their musical careers, was a testing one. The Kyrie is a teasing opener with long suspenseful lines in the chorus over a constantly chugging piano bass. The choir of 63, 17 of them tenors and basses, the rest sopranos and altos, sang hesitantly in the opening bars before quickly warming up in time for the Christe eleison, a surprising piece of polyphonic, a capella writing in Renaissance style.
David Palmer's bouncy and percussive piano introduction ushered in the Gloria, the first real nod to Rossini's profound roots in opera. In the Gratias agimus tibi contralto Sian Millett had her first solo spot, a richly contrapuntal texture predominantly exploring the bottom of the voice range, and here Ms Millett struggled a little as the sheer cubic capacity of the space took its toll. So in due course did soprano Isabella Pitman, once or twice faltering in volume at the lower end of the register in the Qui tollis peccata mundi. Baritone Rory Green coped well with his Quoniam – tenor Steven Swindells had overall less to do than his colleagues.
This is a work predominantly for soloists, unlike, for example, many of Haydn's or Mozart's masses. There were moments when the imbalance of male to female voices in the choir was apparent, which slightly tempered the charmingly operatic feel to the Mass, but in the Cum sancto spiritu the choir seized up the baton with a will. Conductor Joe Davies, a 2nd year choral scholar at St Peter's College, was here - teasing out a chirpy and life-affirming Amen - and elsewhere an animated figure, supple of hand gesture and giving out energy to his singers. He already has the priceless knack of having his head on a 180 degree swivel, controlling the discrete elements incisively. Something tells me he has a substantial future ahead of him in this field. So too perhaps does pianist David Palmer (who also acted as repetiteur in rehearsals), judging by his Prelude Religieux extended solo. It's not so technically difficult, but Mr Palmer gave a smooth flow to the music, keeping carefully to the andantino marking. Isabella Pitman seemed more relaxed in her lyrical Crucifixus aria, and then shone in the O salutaris, a hymn of benediction. In the final Agnus Dei, the choir intervened in the alto solo part with particular beauty in singing Dona nobis pacem.
At the end of his score of the Petite Messe Solennelle the 71 year old Rossini wrote, "Dear God, here it is, finished, my poor little Mass. Is this music sacred or damnable? I was born for opera buffa, as you well know. A little science, a little feeling, that's all. Be merciful then, and admit me to Paradise." The Oxford University Chorus stepped up to the challenges provided by the work and the venue - let's hope Rossini got his wish and was smiling down on them.