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Rossini Petite Messe Solennelle                                  All Saints' Church Eastbourne June 2018

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.

His welcoming remarks put audience and performers at ease, and for most of the soloists' passages he graciously takes a seat in the front pew. You honestly cannot attend a Phoenix concert without being caught up with the joy.

The unaccompanied Locus Iste was a brave choice to open the programme. Anton Bruckner wrote his motets – with one-bar rests built in for the echo – for the huge, cavernous cathedrals of Salzburg and Linz, where the acoustics sustain the pitch. All Saints is a lovely space to sing in, but less resonant, and the intonation was just a little exposed in this piece. No matter: the singing beautifully captured Bruckner's quiet devotion.

Rossini scored the Mass for piano and harmonium – only adding full orchestration later as a grudging afterthought – 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 to hear four fabulous soloists: soprano Ansy Boothroyd and contralto Rebecca Ansty utterly embracing the music in their Qui Tollis duet. Tenor Mark Curtis with a particularly gripping Domine Deus, and Christopher Dixon's lovely bass texture.

The choir had confidence, clarity and excellent balance. The big fugues, notably the Cum Sancto Spiritu and an absolutely electric Et Vitam, filled the All Saints nave. And the final Agnus Dei and Dona Nobis Pacem, with Rebecca's wrenching and exquisite contralto, were genuinely thrilling and impassioned. This was perfect harmony, in every sense.

by Kevin  Anderson

Phoenix Choir


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