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Harmonia Mundi has long had a stellar reputation for its early music releases, and in the Belgian pair of Philippe Herreweghe and René Jacobs the label has been associated with the performing and recording careers of two of the recent leading figures of the early music movement.

Therefore, it’s pleasing to see a healthy representation of those musicians’ work in this selection of six landmark recordings from the Harmonia Mundi archives, which have been repackaged in slimline boxes (meaning the loss of their full texts and translations, which are only available on the label’s website) as the hmHeritage Collection.

Primus inter pares in terms of desirability is perhaps René Jacobs’s 1988 recording (making it the oldest in the collection) of Cavalli’s opera Giasone, the plot of which focuses more on the Greek hero’s romantic dalliances than on the quest for the Golden Fleece; Cavalli’s operas have enjoyed a revival of interest recently, but 25 years ago they were mostly unknown and (pace Raymond Leppard’s Glyndebourne productions) unperformed. Relative unfamiliarity with the style might explain the under-characterised feel to most of the performances, with the exception of the ever-brilliant Dominique Visse in a minor role; Michael Chance as Jason sings sweetly but a little limply at times; while the Medea of Gloria Banditelli doesn’t summon up all the varied emotions that the role contains.

In recent years Jacobs has gained notoriety in some quarters for his interventionist approach to scores (for which he remains steadfastly unapologetic, insisting that listeners have to be helped to imagine theatrical elements that cannot be reproduced on disc), and these tendencies come to the fore in his version of Handel’s Rinaldo. Thunder bursts out, birdsong fills the air, cadenzas grow increasingly outlandish; but it all adds to this tale of conjuring and deception and other-worldly adventures. The singers are uniformly very good, with Vivica Genaux in the title role and Inga Kalna as the sorceress Armida putting in particularly good performances.

In between these two recordings came Jacobs’ first recording of Classical opera, and it’s a stunner. In Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice the contrasts are not overdone, the added effects are kept in check, and the orchestral playing (courtesy of the Freiburg Barockorchester, as in the Rinaldo above) is sweet and light and utterly charming. Add to this surely the finest Orfeo on disc – that of mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink – and outstanding performances by sopranos Verónica Cangemi (Euridice) and Maria Cristina Kiehr (Amore), and the end result is moving and extremely beautiful.

Philippe Herreweghe’s career has been spent almost entirely at the helm of the groups he founded – La Chapelle Royale, Collegium Vocale Gent and the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, and they all perform beautifully for him in Mendelssohn’s EliasElijah auf Deutsch. Unfortunately, it’s the vocal soloists who disappoint here: Petteri Salomaa in the title role is too often staid and restrained, lacking the fire that might make for a convincing Old Testament prophet; Soile Isokoski’s and Monica Groop’s contributions are pleasing, but also a little bland; only John Mark Ainsley gives fully of himself, injecting real verve into his arias and many snippets of recitative.

Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent are on more familiar territory in Lassus’s Psalmi Davidis pœnitentiales , five-part settings of psalms grouped together for their emphasis on penitence. The CD booklet calls these ‘grandiose’, and with Herreweghe’s large choir they certainly come across as such: these become emotive outpourings rather than internal reflection, and Herreweghe varies his forces intelligently across the seven psalms to savour Lassus’s many deft compositional touches.

The sole member of the hmHeritage collection without ‘Jacobs’ or ‘Herreweghe’ in the credits comes from Cantus Cölln and their director, lutenist Konrad Junghänel; the ensemble’s 2001 album of Monteverdi’s late collection Selva morale e spirituale was the first complete recording to use original instruments – only Michel Corboz’s luminous 1967 set for Erato preceded it. Cantus Cölln is a group steeped in the music of the Baroque, and this recording sparkles from start to finish: the singers are supported by the wondrous Concerto Palatino and an equally fine string-and-continuo band.

Adrian Horsewood Read the full review on Agora Classica


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Early Music Today, 2014 - ©Rhinegold Publishing