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This box-set spans four centuries of music and is designed as an introduction to great sacred masterpieces. Completists will bemoan the ‘highlights’ approach in most of the offerings, from the B minor Mass to the St Matthew Passion, Messiah, Creation, Missa solemnis and Elijah.

It’s a valid point, given the variable performances. a beautifully balanced Oxford Camerata rendition of Spem in alium is followed by an overly close recording of Pergolesi’s Stabat mater on the first disc with wholly different musical forces. if you’re looking for a coherent musical or musicological narrative, you’ll be hard pushed to find it on a CD that also includes Mozart’s Ave verum corpus, Bach-Gounod’s Ave Maria and Franck’s Panis angelicus. They’re clearly included as makeweights for a disc that would otherwise run to less than an hour.

If you can live with such minor irritations, this is a bargain introduction to essential repertoire and some first-rate music-making. Bach’s Mass in B minor is a case in point: a stately and idiomatic performance by the Cologne Chamber Orchestra and Dresden Chamber Choir that within seconds transports the listener to another plane. If the full-scale forces employed by the Hungarian State Symphony orchestra and Hungarian Festival Choir for the St Matthew Passion seem less successful, it’s as much testament to how we’ve grown accustomed to historically informed performance practice.

The 1989 recording of Mozart’s Requiem suffers from a similar romantic sensibility, but there’s no denying the drama of Zdenek Kosler’s reading drawn from the Slovak Philharmonic Chorus and orchestra. By contrast, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus’s full-fat Missa solemnis is (despite overwhelming volume) disappointingly earthbound. More memorable moments come in Elijah, notably tenor Christoph genz’s fluid, textually sensitive treatment of Obadiah’s recitative ‘Zerreisst eure herzen’; and the Hungarian State Opera Choir and Orchestra come close to capturing the terror and grandeur of Verdi’s Requiem.

It is the historically informed performances that impress. The Scholars Baroque Ensemble bring a beautiful intimacy of scale and religious sensibility to Messiah. haydn’s Creation benefits from Capella Augustina and VokalEnsemble Köln’s wholly sympathetic interpretation, as well as from the same soloists who feature in the B minor Mass. Oxford Camerata shines again in a chamber-scale Fauré requiem, notable for its well-judged tempi and Lisa Buckley’s ravishing, slightly vulnerable ‘Pie Jesu’.

In sum, an uneven compilation of some canonic works of western art.

PAUL CUTTS Read the full review on Agora Classica


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