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Peter PHILIPS (1560/61 - 1628): "Cantiones Sacrae Quinis et Octonibus Vocis"

The Sarum Consort; Nigel Gardner, organa
Dir: Andrew Mackay

rec: August 28 - 30, 2000, Tisbury (Wiltshire), Wardour Chapel
Naxos - 8.572832 ( 2011) (65'08")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Ave gratia plena a 5a; Ave Jesu Christe a 8; Ave Regina coelorum a 8; Beata Agnes a 5a; Christus resurgens a 5; Cum jucunditate a 5; Disciplinam et sapientiam a 5a; Ecce vicit Leo a 8; Eia ergo a 5a; Elegerunt Apostoli a 5a; Gabriel angelus apparuit a 5a; Gaude Maria virgo a 5; Loquebantur variis linguis a 5; Media vita a 5a; Ne reminiscaris, Domine a 5a; Ne timeas, Maria a 5a; Pater noster a 5a; Salve Regina a 5a; Viae Sion lugent a 5; Virgo prudentissima a 5

Olivia Robinson, Clare Reeder, soprano; Deborah Mackay, Alison Bullock, contralto; Adrian Kelly, Colin Howard, tenor; Richard Brett, Aidan Oliver, bass

The name of Peter Philips is probably mostly associated with music for keyboard. This part of his oeuvre has fared much better in the hands of the recording industry than his vocal oeuvre. The latter is far larger than his keyboard output, though. In his article on Philips in New Grove John Steele even states that "[the] heart of Philips's music undoubtedly lies in his madrigals and motets". Considering its size and quality it is hard to understand that only a relatively small part of his vocal oeuvre has been recorded. It is also surprising that this disc was released only in 2011, whereas the recording dates from 2000. I don't know all the available recordings. However, most of the interpretations I have heard have not impressed me. That also goes for this disc.

Peter Philips, who probably was a pupil of William Byrd, left England for religious reasons. He stayed for some time in Italy which had a lasting influence on his development as a composer. He spent the largest part of his life in the Spanish Netherlands, where from 1591 until his death he was active as an organist and keyboard teacher. His first printed collections of vocal music were devoted to the madrigal, published in Antwerp between 1596 and 1603. In 1612 he published his two collections of Cantiones Sacrae in 1612 and 1613. They were reprinted in 1617 and 1625 respectively. In these new editions a basso continuo part is added. Whether this was on his own initiative or rather a decision of the printer is impossible to say.

The English poet Henry Peacham wrote that Philips' vocal music "affecteth altogether the Italian vein". That comes to the fore in the use of madrigalisms and word-painting as well as contrasting rhythms. This should affect the interpretation, but unfortunately that is not the case in this recording. Let me start by pointing out some positive aspects. The motets are sung with one voice per part. That is probably most close to the common practice in Philips' time, more than a performance with a large choir such as The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge. As Philips' motets are available with and without basso continuo, it is up to the interpreters whether to use an organ. In this recording some motets are performed with organ, others a cappella. The Latin texts are pronounced in a way which could well reflect the practice in the Dutch-speaking Netherlands. It is positive that Andrew Mackay has given this subject some thought. Others are less careful in this respect.

That is as positive as I can be about this recording. Considering the ensemble's small size I am surprised that the voices don't blend really well. That is partly due to the slight vibrato of most singers which damages the ensemble. Another notable feature is the lack of balance within the consort. The disc opens with the motet Christus resurgens, and one could get the impression that this is a piece for soprano solo. The other voices are almost reduced to accompaniment. In many motets the upper voices are too dominant. In Pater noster the soprano seems to move independently from the other voices. Although this motet has only one treble part and two bass parts, the soprano still dominates. It has to be said, though, that the lower voices have little presence anyway.

The text is seriously underexposed. In music which shows the traits of the modern Italian style the words deserve much more attention. There is also a reluctance to use dynamic shading to underline some elements in the text. Generally these performances are dynamically rather flat. An important aspect are the rhythms which Philips often uses to single out episodes in the text. These are not given sufficient attention. You have to listen carefully to notice them, but I am sure that Philips wanted them to be exposed more clearly, in order to communicate the content. The madrigalism with which Ecce vicit Leo opens is hardly noticeable.

I was severely disappointed by Trinity College Choir's performance, and I have to say the same about this recording. One of the most convincing recordings of Philips' vocal music is that by Currende, directed by Erik Van Nevel (Accent, 1989). The Choir of Westminster Cathedral is probably a bit too large for this music, but in their recording (Hyperion, 1992) a number of motets are performed with instruments doubling the voices. This is a good option, because the participation of instruments was common practice on the continent in Philips' time.

There is every reason for Philips's vocal music to be recorded complete. Byrd's vocal oeuvre is also available on disc in its entirety, so why not Philips's? Unfortunately this disc by The Sarum Consort is another failed attempt to do him justice.

Johan van Veen ( 2012)

Relevant links:

The Sarum Consort

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