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Peter PHILIPS (1560/61 - 1628): Cantiones Sacrae 1612

Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge
Dir: Richard Marlow

rec: Jan 11 - 13, 2002, Cambridge, Trinity College Chapel
Chandos - CHAN 0770 ( 2010) (77'55")

Ascendit Deus; Ave gratia plena; Ave Regina caelorum; Ave verum corpus; Cantabant Sancti; Cantantibus organis; Christus resurgens; Cum jucunditate; Factum est silentium; Gabriel Angelus; Gaudeamus omnes; Gaudent in caelis; Gentes Philippus ducit; Hodie beata Virgo Maria; Modo veniet Dominator; Ne reminiscaris, Domine; O beatum et sacrosanctum diem; O beatum Martinum; O nomen Jesu; Salve, Regina; Sancti mei; Surge Petre; Surgens Jesus; Tristitia vestra; Tu es vas electionis

Peter Philips belongs to the English composers of around 1600 who, like William Byrd, remained faithful to the Roman Catholic church. But unlike Byrd he left the country. In 1582 he travelled to Brussels and then to Rome. Here he became acquainted with the Italian style. In 1591 he settled in Antwerp where he married and established relations with key figures in society. Here he acted as keyboard teacher, and in 1597 he was appointed organist at the court of archduke Albert in Brussels.

According to John Steele, in his article on Philips in New Grove, "[t]he heart of Philips's music undoubtedly lies in his madrigals and motets". It is therefore rather suprising that his vocal music has been largely neglected by the recording industry. Some of his motets may appear now and then in programmes with sacred music from around 1600, there are few recordings which are entirely devoted to this part of his oeuvre. That is particularly regrettable considering its quality.

The Cantiones Sacrae are the first collection of his sacred music which was published in 1612. Five years later a second edition was printed, in which the five voices are supported by a basso continuo. That shows a development in his compositional style towards the stile nuovo. But even without it Philips' vocal music "affecteth altogether the Italian vein", according to the English poet Henry Peacham.

This recording contains motets from this collection, but unlike the title suggests, it is not a complete recording. The tracklist gives the numbers in the collection: track 1 is O beatum et sacrosanctum diem, which is number 1 in the collection. The disc ends (track 25) with motet no. 68, Ne reminiscaris, Domine. For every motet the feast for which it is written is also given - very commendable.

But otherwise there isn't that much positive to say about this recording. It just has too many deficits to be really satisfying. In his programme notes Noel O'Regan writes that the two years Philips spent in Rome were crucial for the formation of his musical style. "Philips's sacred music has been labelled conservative but this is to misunderstand the quite radical change that Roman music underwent from the mid-1560s onwards (...). The older imitative style was now used sparingly and a chordal style, which declaimed the text according to its natural rhythm, came to the fore. This is a strong feature of Philips's writing, as is a fast and constantly changing response to individual words and phrases".

But exactly these features of his music hardly come off in these performances. The declamatory character of Philips' motets is seriously underexposed. The singing is mostly legato and there are few dynamic shades on words and within phrases. The whole treatment of dynamics is rather odd. Many phrases are sung piano, and often I can't see any reason for that. Take for instance Factum est silentium, one of the better performances on this disc, by the way. The closing line of the verse says: "ten thousand times one hundred thousand stood before him". It is a mystery to me why this is sung piano. Even more odd are various crescendi and diminuendi, which is really not called for in music of around 1600.

There are other features which make this recording a disappointment. With 25 singers the choir is far too large for this kind of repertoire. This size is also responsible for the lack of colouring in the singing. With a smaller group of singers it is far easier to adapt the style of singing to the requirements of the text. Even a performance with one voice per part would be a plausible option. In addition, these motets were written and printed on the continent, and therefore the performance has to reflect the common practice over there. Among them is the use of instruments playing colla voce. Various instruments can be used, like viols, cornetts and sackbuts or an organ.

To sum up, as much as we need a recording of Philips' vocal oeuvre, this disc is just not what we need, as it presents a one-sided picture of Philips' music and is musically unsatisfying.

Johan van Veen ( 2010)

Relevant links:

Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge

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