Classical Reissue Reviews

Harmonia mundi Cornerstone Works of Sacred Music Boxed Set – Various Artists – Harmonia Mundi HMX 2908304.33 (30 discs)

Maybe the best primer on sacred music now available.

Published on December 1, 2009

Harmonia mundi Cornerstone Works of Sacred Music Boxed Set – Various Artists – Harmonia Mundi HMX 2908304.33 (30 discs)
Harmonia mundi Cornerstone Works of Sacred Music Boxed Set – Various Artists – Harmonia Mundi HMX 2908304.33 (30 discs)

Harmonia mundi Cornerstone Works of Sacred Music Boxed Set – Various Artists – Harmonia Mundi HMX 2908304.33 (30 discs), 35+ hours *****:

Ambrosian Chant; Old Roman Chant; Beneventan Chant; Mozarabic Chant – Ensemble Organum/ Marcel Peres; Gregorian Requiem Mass – Deller Consort/ Alfred Deller, director; Mass from the Year 1000 (excerpts); Plainchant for Santiago Compostela – Anonymous 4; Cistercian Chant – Ensemble Organun/ Marcel Peres; Magnus Liber Organi – Theatre of Voices/ Paul Hillier, director; 12th Century Polyphony in Aquiaine; Mass for Christmas Day; Hockets from the Bamberg Manuscript; 13th Century Marian Songs; The Gradual of Eleanor of Brittany; An English Ladymass – Ensemble Organun/ Marcel Peres; Theatre of Voices/ Paul Hillier, director; Anonymous 4; Polyphonic Motets from the Ars Antiqua to the Renaissance – Hilliard Ensemble, Paul Hilliard, director/ Orlando Consort/ La Chapelle Royale, Ensemble Vocal Europeen, Philippe Herreweghe, conductor/Ensemble Clement Janequin, Dominique Visse, conductor/ Deller Consort, Mark Deller, conductor; MACHAUT: Notre Dame Mass – Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/ Paul Hillier, conductor; DESPREZ: Pangue lingua Mass – Ensemble Clement Janequin, Dominique Visse, conductor; JANEQUIN: Mass “La Bataille” – Ensemble Clement Janequin, Dominique Visse, conductor; LASSUS: Mass “Tous les regretz” – Huelgas Ensemble/ Paul Van Nevel, conductor; PALESTRINA: Mass Viri Galilaei – La Chapelle Royale, Ensemble Organum/ Philippe Herreweghe, conductor; BYRD: Mass for 4 Voices/ Pro Arte Sigers/ Paul Hilliard, conductor; DUMONT: Memorare; LULLY: Dies Irae – La Chapelle Royale/ Philippe Herreweghe, conductor; DELALANDE: Super flumina Babilonis; CHARPENTIER: Te Deum; LULLY: Ave Coeli; DELALANDE: Miserator et misericors – Les Arts Florissants/ William Christie, conductor; MASSAINO, LASSUS: Lamentations of Jeremiah – Huelgas Ensemble/ Paul Van Nevel; CHARPENTIER: Tenebrae Book 2; COUPERIN: Lecons de Tenebres – Concerto Vocale/ Rene Jacobs, conductor; KRENEK: Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet, book 2 – RIAS Chamber Choir, Marcus Creed, conductor; MONTEVERDI: Vespers of the Blessed Virgin – La Chapelle Royal/ Philippe Herreweghe, conductor; ROVETTA: Solemn Vespers – Cantus Colln/ Konrad Junghanel, conductor; SCARLATTI: Cain – Academy of Ancient Music Berlin/ Rene Jacobs, conductor; HANDEL: Messiah – Les Arts Florissants/ William Christie, conductor; MENDELSSOHN: Paulus – La Chapelle Royal/ Philippe Herreweghe, conductor; Reformed Songs and Psalms – Ensemble Clement Janequin; TALLIS: 9 Psalm Tunes from Archbishop Parker’s Psalter – Stile Antico; PURCELL: Remember not Lord, our offences; SCHULTZ: Concert in Form einer teutschen Begrabnis – La Chapelle Royal/ Philippe Herreweghe, conductor; BRUHNS: German Cantata; BACH: Missa  Brevis in F – Cantus Colln/ Konrad Junghanel, conductor; BACH: Christmas Oratorio – Academy of Ancient Music Berlin/ Rene Jacobs, conductor; PERGOLESI: Stabat Mater – Concerto Vocale/ Rene Jacobs; BOCCHERINI, VIVALDI: Stabat Mater – Ensemble 415/ Chiara Banchini, director; ROSSINI: Stabat Mater – RIAS Chamber Choir/ Marcus Creed, conductor; MOZART, BRAHMS: Requiem – Orchestre des Champs Elysees/ Philippe Herreweghe, conductor; FAURE: Requiem – Ensemble Musique Oblique/ Philippe Herreweghe, conductor; DURUFLE: Requiem – Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford/ Bill Ives, conductor; BEETHOVEN: Missa Solemnis – Orchestre des Champs Elysees/ Philippe Herreweghe, conductor; MENDELSSOHN: Psalms – RIAS Chamber Choir/ Marcus Creed, conductor; BRUCKNER: Motets – Ensemble Musique Oblique/ Philippe Herreweghe, conductor; POULENC: 4 Motets for a Time of Penitence; 4 Christmas Motets; Mass in G – RIAS Chamber Choir/ Marcus Creed, conductor; BERNSTEIN: Mass, A Theater Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers – German Symphony Orchestra of Berlin/ Kent Nagano, conductor; Orthodox Church Music; RACHMANINOV: Vespers (selections) – Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/ Paul Hillier, conductor.   

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.

– Steven Ritter


 


 




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