Ars Nova Copenhagen / Paul Hillier

Requiem: Music by Johannes Ockeghem and Bent Sørensen

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Johannes Ockeghem's Missa pro defunctis, probably composed in 1461, is the earliest surviving polyphonic setting of the requiem mass. The requiem continued to develop after this date (the Council of Trent mandated several new sections), and it was several centuries before it assumed the form it has today. Conductor Paul Hillier, who can get uncanny sonic effects out of a choir like just about anybody else, had the idea of taking requiem sections by Danish composer Bent Sørensen, composed between 1985 and 2007, and interpolating them among the sections of Ockeghem's mass. Several sections of the mass are also sung in plainchant. It must be said that the individual performances are strong even by Hillier's standards. Sample the Sørensen "Benedictus" (track 9), where sections of the Ars Nova Copenhagen exchanged a sort of shimmering pedal point. This kind of thing is what keeps people buying Hillier's albums. The Sørensen pieces have something of the quality of virtuoso American choral music by the likes of Morton Lauridsen or a less tonal and more cluster-oriented Eric Whitacre, and they're quite attractive. The Ockeghem performances are very strong as well, with crisp, tense singing accentuating the extreme length and complexity of the composer's polyphonic lines. What's missing is something that really ties all the music together. Sørensen does not write in a polyphonic idiom, and for the most part he did not compose the music specifically for this project. The new music doesn't link to the Ockeghem movement in any special way, and some of the movements, for no very clear reason, are left in plainchant. The multiple-language booklet attempts justifications, but they're hard to hear in the music. Doubtless the faultless sonics will attract many listeners, and others may find that just as Ockeghem added a new type of setting to the performance of a monophonic mass, the same may be done to his own music. But the experimental spirit works better here than the overall plan of coherence.

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