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Label : Harmonia Mundi
Format : Ape
Cover : Yes

A quintessential selection of the best western sacred music through the ages and continents that will please one and all, from an inquisitive novice to the discerning connoisseur. 90 complete works of essential repertoire [on 30 CDs]. Harmonia Mundi offers you the finest selection of 111 cornerstone works of western sacred music. From the earliest Christian chants to Bernstein’s mass, from the gems of the Baroque to beloved Lutheran hymns, this vital collection has been created by today’s finest artists at the peak of their talents. Harmonia Mundi is offering it in this extremely Limited Box Edition.

Harmonia mundi has decided to offer a generous selection of its considerable archives of sacred music. I can think of no other company as qualified to do so, as they have consistently been at the forefront of the sacred music field for many years now, and their catalog contains some of the finest examples of the genre across hundreds of years spanning many different types of music. If you are a novice to this field you will find no better starter set than this one, and it should find a home on the shelves of many music schools and conservatories worldwide. If you are like me and already quite “into” this music you will probably have a lot of these releases already. Even so, there is much here to make up for even a generous amount of duplication. It is not a perfectly conceived set, and I will speak about a few things, but overall it is quite simply a superb collection, many of the recordings at the top of their respective fields.
The first discs start with chant of all sorts, and the usual suspects are performing them, which means as good as it gets. The Hilliards, Anonymous 4, Ensemble Organum, even a surprisingly apt and well-presented group from Alfred Deller and his consort sounds acceptable to more up-to-date ears. I would, however, have appreciated some Byzantine chant, especially as the chants given – like the Ambrosian and Old Roman – have nearly undisputed Byzantine connections. Also, the token disc given to Orthodox chant gives us only fairly modern Russian Orthodox music. I know for a fact that the HM vaults are full of Byzantine music, and a more comprehensive listing would have been more useful. Also, we are given only the “vespers” portion of the Rachmaninoff Vigil service, and this particular performance happens to be one of the best available with the Estonian choir and Paul Hillier giving a reading for the ages. To get a little less than half of this performance is unconscionable. This all seems like an afterthought, and not worthy of HM’s usually considered approach.
The progression of early polyphony up through the standard masterpieces of the Renaissance is all presented in wondrously effective readings that are as good as any on the market. The generous selection of Lamentations as found in the Tenebrae services is particularly gratifying, even though in several instances we get only one section. This was felt most severely in the Lamentations of Krenek, a work I did not known until now, but found especially haunting and affecting, despite its rather severe harmonic language.
Herreweghe’s Monteverdi Vespers is a clean and rather scrubbed performance, certainly not as energetic and exulting Gardiner or Parrott, but cleanly and clearly done, as almost everything by this conductor is. Cain, an oratorio by Alessandro Scarlatti, makes a welcome appearance in Rene Jacob’s demonstrative reading. Handel’s Messiah used to be one of my favorites, but has since lost ground; after Parrott’s recent release on Coro all others have a lot of climbing to do. But Herreweghe’s Paulus is an excellent traversal of this popular and populist score. Rene Jacobs gives a terrific reading of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, though his vision (and singing) of the Pergolesi Stabat Mater leaves me somewhat tepid in spirit. Marcus Creed enjoys great support in his Rossini Stabat Mater, while again Herreweghe gives top notch and spirited performances of the Mozart and Faure Requiems, the Brahms German Requiem and the Beethoven Missa Solemnis, maybe the best period instrument performance of this seminal work. I do think I need to question the inclusion of Bernstein’s Mass—while I dearly love the piece, it is not technically a real mass nor is it specifically a piece of religious music, but rather a theatrical commentary on aspects of religion and belief. Nagano’s version, originally on SACD, is given straight here, and though the singing and orchestral playing are top drawer—much better than the composer has—the spirit and enthusiasm is lacking, Nagano’s understanding of the piece is somewhat incomplete, and the late Jerry Hadley’s celebrant extraordinarily wimpy. But if you don’t know the work it certainly might lead you to the composer’s own recording, or to the new reading by Alsop on Naxos.There are so many good things here it is almost impossible to cover them, and if I leave some pieces out you may assume that is because they are easily fit into the plus category. A survey box to be sure, but many, many others will enjoy this for its extraordinary consistency across genres and ensembles, the uniformly terrific sound, and the breadth of the coverage.

CD 1 – Early Christian Chant (5th -13th Century)
Chant, chant, chant! You won’t want to listen to this many times unless you are a chant specialist.

CD 2 – Gregorian Chant
Includes Messe de Requiem gregorienne, Cistercian Chant and Magnus liber organi More chant…

CD 3 – Birth of Polyphony (1100-1300)
Includes music from Notre-Dame School, hockets from the Bamberg Manuscript, etc., etc. Now it’s getting more interesting!

CD 4 – Polyphonic Motet from Ars Antiqua to the Renaissance
Includes 14th Century English music (Hilliard Ensemble), Dufay, Dunstable, Plummer, and from the Renaissance Desprez, Janequin, Byrd, Gesualdo and Hassler

CD 5-6 – Polyphonic Mass from Middle Ages to the Renaissance
Machaut – Messe de Notre Dame, Desprez – Missa Pange Lingua, Janequin – Messe `La Bataille’
Lassus – Missa `Tous les regretz’, Palestrina – Missa `Viri Galilaei, Byrd – Mass for 4 Voices

CD 7 – French `Petit Motet’ and `Grand Motet’
Dumont, Lully, Delalande and Charpentier Te Deum.

CD 8 – Lamentations & Tenebrae
Music by Massaino, Lassus, Charpentier, Couperin, and Krenek

CD 9-10 – Monteverdi Vespro della beata Vergine – Herreweghe
In my opinion not such a good recording as the one by Rene Jacobs, but nice to have to compare.
Also Vespro Solenne by G Rovetta (1596-1668) from Cantus Colln and Konrad Junghanel. This is beautiful!

CD 11-12 – Alessandro Scarlatti – Cain overo Il Primo Omicidio – Rene Jacobs
A great recording of Scarlatti’s oratorio of the story of Cain and Abel. Good orchestral playing, excellent soloists.

CD 13-14 – Handel – Messiah – Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
A very creditable Messiah. It certainly beats both my Huddersfield Choral Society and my Bernstein version, and comes pretty close to the more exciting Rene Jacobs version. The soloists here are good – Barbara Schlick, Sandrine Piau, Andreas Scholl (excellent), Mark Padmore and Nathan Berg.

CD 15-16 – Mendelssohn – Paulus – Herreweghe
This work was new to me, and on a single hearing is beautifully performed, if perhaps a little understated.

CD 17 – Music for the Reformed Church
Music by Sermisy, L’Estocart, Tallis, Purcell, Schutz, Bruhns and a Missa brevis in F by Bach.
The Bruhns cantata made me want to investigate his music further.

CD 18-19 – Bach – Christmas Oratorio – Rene Jacobs
A simply stunning recording. Soloists are Dorothea Roschmann, Andreas Scholl, Werner Gura and Klaus Hager.

CD 20-21 – Stabat Mater
On these CDs we get Stabat Maters by Pergolesi (the well known Rene Jacobs/Sebastian Hennig performance), Boccherini (Agnes Mellon/Ensemble 415/Chiara Banchini), Vivaldi (Scholl/Ensemble 415/Chiara Banchini) and Rossini (RIAS Kammerchor/Creed). The Rossini work was new to me, and particularly appealed.

CD 22-24 – Requiem
On three CDs we get the Requiems by Mozart (Herreweghe), Brahms (Herreweghe), Faure (1893 version) (also Herreweghe), and Durufle (Magdalen College Oxford)

CD 25-28 – 19th & 20th Centuries
Beethoven – Missa Solemnis (Herreweghe), Mendelssohn – various motets, Bruckner – motets
Poulenc – 8 motets & Messe en Sol majeur, Bernstein – Mass – what a gloriously mixed up work – bass guitar meets marching band with a bit of West Side Story and Jesus Christ Superstar thrown in for good measure!

CD 29 – Orthodox Church Music
Various pieces from the 17th & 18th century and Rachmaninov – All Night Vigil Op37 Vespers all superbly sung by the Estonian Chamber Choir.