Mass with opera and counterpoint

Review of a Rossini-concert at Mørdrup Kirke

Ole Josephsen, civil journalist (Helsingør Dagblad, 29 March, 2017)

The concert at Mørdrup church Sunday afternoon, which was arranged by Espergærde Music Society, offered a single work: Rossini’s last larger work “Petite Messe Solennelle” – meaning “Little Solemn Mass”. It is neither little nor solemn, but rather a very unusual work by a composer who managed to compose nearly 40 operas. In the mass, arias in Italian style are merged with counterpoint in the chorus movements.

The performers were Copenhagen Soloists with a solistic choir of 9 singers, selected from amongst else Danish Radio Vocal Ensemble, DR Concert Choir, Ars Nova, Swedish opera scenes and the Fyn Opera. Beyond serving as choir, the singers also served as soloists, and each aria therefore felt as if it had naturally arisen from the choir. The conductor was Jonathan Ofir.

The duet “Qui Tollis” was sung softly and intimately by soprano Anna Forsebo and alto Simone Rønn. Bass Staffan Liljas filled the church with his sonorous voice in the “Quoniam” movement. “Crucifixus” was a beautiful aria with light high tones in Radmila Rajic’s rendering, and the concluding “Agnus Dei” was peaceful and moving with Johanne Thisted Højlund as alto soloist. Alto Nana Bugge Rasmussen, tenors Adam Riis and Emil Lykke as well as bass Piet Larsen took the rest of the solo parts.

The chorus movements were sung with a glow, which coloured the various vocal lines. In the very precise fugues there was quick pace, and the counterpoint had actual swing to it.

In “Sanctus” the choir was heard a- capella in a sequence that could have been a soft lullaby with a steady flow of beautiful harmonies. With a choir of only 9 singers, the sound picture becomes transparent, and one can follow the individual lines in the polyphonic sound picture.

The “orchestra” consisted of Christina Bjørkøe on the church’s distinguished Steinway grand piano and Gilbert Martinez on the little portable organ. Here it was Christina Bjørkøe making the big statements. Rossini had written a piano part that was to act as a big orchestra, and it certainly did add up to a lot of notes. Christina Bjørkøe had hardly any pauses – and played confidently and surely from start to finish.

Towards the end, she got a movement for herself, as Rossini had inserted a “religious prelude”, an intermezzo, which contrasts with the mass’s style in having a distinct romantic character.

Gilbert Martinez on the little organ (Rossini had assigned a harmonium) contributed with chords and single melodies, but otherwise the composer did not give the instrument much space in the collective sound picture.

Rossini’s mass became a rare musical experience. Vocally beautifully conveyed by the 9 singers from Copenhagen Soloists, beautifully framed in by Christina Bjørkøe and Gilbert Martinez, and impressively staged and directed by Jonathan Ofir. The public responded with standing ovations.