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Peter PHILIPS (1560/61 - 1628): Cantiones sacrae octonis vocibus (1613)

The Choir of Royal Hollowaya; The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensembleb; Rupert Gough, organc
Dir: Rupert Gough

rec: Jan 5 - 7, 2012, London, St Alban's Church, Holborn
Hyperion - CDA67945 (© 2013) (71'59")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translation: E

Alma redemptoris matera [1]; Beata Dei genitrixae [1]; Beati estisab [1]; Benedictus Deus nosterab [1]; Benedictus Dominusab; Caecilia virgoa [1]; Ecce panis angelorumab [1]; Gaudens gaudeboab [1]; Hodie nobis de caeloab [1]; Jubilate Deo omnis terraab [1]; O quam suavis IIab [1]; Panis sancte, panis viveab [1]; Regina caeli laetareab [1]; Salve regina, vita, dulcedoa [1]; Veni Sancte Spiritusacd/c

Source: [1] Cantiones sacrae octonis vocibus, 1613

Gawain Glentond, Sam Goble, cornett; Emily White, Tom Lees, Andrew Harwood-White, Adrian France, sackbut; William Mason, Matthew Searles, organe

The vocal oeuvre of Peter Philips hasn't fared that well on disc. Even in programmes with English vocal music of the renaissance his name seldom appears. However, it is questionable whether his music is really English. In his liner-notes Lionel Pike, who prepared the editions for the present recording, states that "the only sign of English influence is in his music for virginals (...). The remainder of his output bears strongly the marks of Italian music, for he went abroad in 1582 (...), in order to worship as a Catholic, which he was unable to do in the England of Elizabeth I. In Rome he fell under the spell of the Italian madrigal (his favourite composer seems to have been Marenzio) (...)". This could well be the reason that the few recordings which are on the market and most of which are performed by English vocal ensembles, are not that convincing, as they too much approach Philips' vocal works from an Anglosaxon angle. It is different here, although this recording also raises a couple of questions.

Most of the sacred music was written in the southern Netherlands. From 1591 until his death Philips was active as an organist and keyboard teacher here. In 1597 he was appointed as organist to Archduke Albert in Brussels. As he was not the chapelmaster - a position which was held by Géry de Ghersem - he was not obliged to compose music for the liturgy. Even so, it is very likely that his motets were used. Little is known for sure about the performance practice, but the participation of instruments is well documented, and therefore the cooperation of The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble is fully justified.

The largest part of Philips' sacred works was published in three collections in 1612 and 1613. The Cantiones Sacrae of 1612 are scored for five voices, whereas the Cantiones Sacrae of 1613 are scored for eight. The third collection, Gemmulae sacrae, comprises pieces for two and three voices with basso continuo. The Cantiones Sacrae of 1613 were reprinted in 1625, also with a basso continuo part. This is the reason that in some motets organs participate. However, one cannot be completely certain that it was Philips himself who added the basso continuo. It could also be the responsibility of the publisher. This was the case, for instance, with the Cantiones Sacrae by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, which were also published in Antwerp in 1621.

The very fact of the scoring of the 1613 motets for two choirs bears witness to Philips' Italian leanings. Moreover, he doesn't miss opportunities to illustrate the text, for instance through the addition or reduction of voices, musical figures, harmony and change of metre. The last motet of the programme, Hodie nobis de caelo, is a vivid illustration of Philips' attention to the text. Lionel Pike writes: "To emphasize the words so that the listeners could the more readily understand them - a form of 'preaching' - was a fundamental trait of Counter-Reformation music (...); every nuance of the text is mirrored in the motets, adding an extra layer of information to the religious ideas being expounded". This comes off in the performance, but only to a certain extent, and not enough. The main reason is the size of the choir. It is not known how many singers were involved in performances of this kind of music in Brussels where they may have been sung in the first place. However, the number of singers in, for instance, the San Marco in Venice - up to 30 under Giovanni Gabrieli - and the court in Munich under Orlandus Lassus were probably the exception. Moreover, it is anything but sure that the singers which were available were always involved in performances. The Choir of Royal Holloway comprises 30 singers, and that seems too large for music of this kind. It is probably not only implausible from a historical point of view, but also doesn't serve the music very well. Especially the audibility of the text is damaged by the lack of transparency. In Beati estes the word "exsultate" (be glad) is illustrated by a series of short notes, but these don't come off that well with so many singers.

The liner-notes sometimes seem at odds with the information from sources which Rupert Gough has turned to. He specifically refers to an engraving of a Mass in Brussels dating from 1595 which shows a group of singers and players (also printed in the booklet). He uses that as evidence for the involvement of instrumentalists. He also mentions that the two choirs are clearly separated; however, Lionel Pike states that "there is no indication that the performers were spatially separated, as they clearly were in St Mark's Venice". In real terms it probably doesn't matter that much in a recording as the full experience of two truly separated ensembles can hardly be realized on CD.

Gough has opted for a wide variety of scorings in this recording. In most motets the voices are supported by instruments; in some several voices are replaced by them. A few are sung a capella or with organ accompaniment. In one motet the first choir is comprising four solo voices, whereas the second choir is sung by the full ensemble. Panis sancte, panis vive is performed with two altos and instruments. This is not really satisfying as the singers are overshadowed by the instruments and the text is hard to understand. In Ecce panis angelorum the use of women's voices for the plainchant seems also historically debatable.

The interpretation is based on the right approach of the repertoire. That makes it even more regrettable that these performances fall short in some respects, especially the number of singers involved and - as a result - the delivery. Moreover, the Italian pronunciation of Latin is historically not justified. That said, this is one of the most convincing recordings of Philips' vocal music which are available. The Italian features are conveyed quite well, and the singing and playing is generally outstanding. I therefore strongly recommend this disc. It is much better than the other discs I have reviewed on this site (The Sarum Consort; Choir of Trinity College). Two other recordings need to be mentioned: by the Choir of Winchester Cathedral, directed by David Hill (Hyperion) and by the ensemble Currende, directed by Erik Van Nevel (Accent).

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

The Choir of Royal Holloway
The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble

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