Rossini’s reason for turning again to a major choral work after years of near-total silence was probably a commission from Count Alexis Pillet-Will for his wife, to whom the work is dedicated, and at whose house the first performance took place. This may also explain the relatively modest forces employed (12 singers, 2 pianos, and harmonium). Rossini later produced an orchestral version and added the soprano solo O salutaris hostia. The version given on Saturday was for piano, harmonium, and full choir.
Of Saturday’s performance, the first thing to note is the sheer joy which seemed to radiate from all the performers of this extraordinary music. The four soloists were all top class and well suited to the “operatic” nature of some of the solo writing – hardly surprising given Rossini’s pedigree. Tenor Daniel Joy performed the first solo item Domine Deus magnificently, and the soprano/mezzo duet Qui Tollis was ravishingly given by Katherine Crompton and Kate Symonds-Joy. Bass Edward Grint sang his solo Quoniam with great power and subtlety, and the two soprano solos were sung with a combination of delicacy and power by Katherine Crompton. Main honours, though, go to the choir, who sang throughout with enormous gusto, their enjoyment of the piece very evident, their intonation was impeccable and the words clearly enunciated.
The very demanding piano part was a tour-de-force for Sue Graham Smith, its massive fortissimo chords, more reminiscent of Brahms or Rachmaninov than Rossini, require a depth and power which must be very taxing in a work of this length. Anne Page gave a virtuoso performance on the harmonium, and added two short but very challenging pieces after the interval to demonstrate the qualities of that now rarely-heard instrument.
Maestro Derek Harrison’s tempi are always well judged, and allow his singers time to breath. He celebrates 40 years with HCS this year, and may he continue for many more.
Rossini wrote on the work’s final page that he didn’t know whether the music was “sacred or sacrilegious”. Whatever the verdict on that, heavenly it undoubtedly is. A wonderful concert and an evening full of joy.