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The Requiem Mass evolved from the Eucharistic Mass and by the 9th century had become a separate entity. It took its name from the opening text – ‘Requiem aeternam’ – and retained three sections of the Mass Ordinary, Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. The Gloria and Credo were replaced over a long period of time by appropriate liturgical texts, the most substantial of which was 12th-century hymn, the sequence known as the Dies Irae. This last, with its graphic commentary on the apocalyptic events of the Last Judgement, proved a giftto later composers, with Berlioz, Verdi and Britten seizing on its dramatic power to produce awe-inspiring music.

As a compendium of funeral music down the ages, this bargain basement 16-CD set is hard to beat. If you want to trace the development of the Requiem, then it can be heartily recommended. The Requiem’s origins in monophonic chant are represented, as is the earliest surviving setting, that by Johannes Ockeghem in which plainsong and polyphony are alternated. Almost all the great concert Requiems from the 18th century onwards are included, though it was surprising to find Cherubini’s fine C minor Requiem omitted in favour of his D minor male-voice account written in readiness for his own funeral. We are brought relatively up to date with 20th-century responses to the 1,000-year-old texts in versions by Pizzetti, Duruflé and Britten, though it’s a pity there wasn’t something composed more recently than 1962 in the set. Nor is the Protestant tradition ignored: Purcell’s celebrated Funeral Music for Queen Mary and Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien are present, as is Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem. The final disc ends with Berg’s Violin Concerto, written in 1935 – which is not a Requiem in the liturgical sense but quite definitely an instrumental ‘in memoriam’ piece for the 18-year-old Manon Gropius and, as it turned out, for Berg himself.

While none of these recordings would ever be my first choices, they are never less than acceptable and some are very good indeed. Particularly enjoyable are Schola Cantorum Karolus Magnus in Gregorian hymns of death and resurrection; the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, under Timothy Brown in Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary,and a CD of ‘Lamentations’ from the 15th and 16th centuries; a Czech performance of Cherubini’s D minor Requiem; a fine Brahms Requiem from Berlin Radio forces under Helmut Koch, with a silvery soprano soloist in Anna Tomowa-Sintow; Cologne’s Chorus Musicus in Schumann’s rarely heard Requiem; and Camerata Vocale Freiburg under Winfried Toll in what must have been unusual repertoire for them – Howells’s unaccompanied Requiem.

PHILIP REED Read the full review on Agora Classica

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