Another Saturday evening at All Saints Church, and yet more evidence of the health and strength of Eastbourne’s choral music: Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle splendidly performed by the Phoenix Choir.
It is a commonplace quip that Rossini’s Mass is neither very small nor very solemn. It is a wonderful swirl of expansive music, often quite operatic and only occasionally reverential. Why choose it? “We like contrast,” said director Michael Fields. “Our last concert, the Bach St Matthew Passion, was a wonderful experience for the singers, but also really demanding both technically and emotionally. Then at the first Rossini rehearsal, everyone was chuckling and smiling. Rossini has an infectious sense of fun.”
Musical history is riven with stories of temperamental and even tyrannical conductors. They should learn from Michael Fields. Michael, to his performers as well as to the audience, radiates reassurance and a kind of relish for the music. Under his baton, clear but coaxing, the choir sings without fear and the enjoyment is contagious.
Rossini scored the Mass for piano and harmonium and accompanists Gavin Stevens and Colin Hughes here were absolutely spot-on. They had their own moment of fun, ahead of the main work, with Milhaud’s exuberant Brasiliera – a kind of classical Duelling Banjos.
And then to the Rossini. It’s an irresistible work but an odd mixture: chorus singing which spans the reverential and the dramatic; a breezy, almost impertinent accompaniment; and gloriously operatic solo writing. A bit incongruous – but every performer met the challenge throughout.
We were privileged with four fabulous soloists: soprano Ansy Boothroyd, contralto Rebecca Ansty, tenor Mark Curtis and Christopher Dixon’s lovely bass.
The choir had confidence, clarity and excellent balance. The big fugues, notably the Cum Sancto Spiritu and an electric Et Vitam, filled the All Saints nave. And the final Agnus Dei and Dona Nobis Pacem, with Rebecca’s exquisite interpretation, were genuinely thrilling and impassioned. This was perfect harmony, in every sense. By Kevin Anderson.