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Peter PHILIPS (1561-1628)
Cantiones sacrae octonis vocibus (1613)
Benedictus Deus noster [3.33]; O quam suavis II [4.57]; Jubilate Deo omnis terra [3.34]; Benedictus Dominus [3.49]; Veni Sancte Spiritus - plainchant, cornet and organ [4.38]; Beati estis [3.09]; Ecce panis angelorum [4.49]; Salve regina, vita, dulcendo [6.01]; Regina caeli laetare [4.01]; Panis sancte, panis vive [3.57]; Caecilia virgo [7.33]; Veni Sancte Spiritus – organ solo [5.31]; Gaudens gaudebo [3.09]; Beata Dei genetrix [3.42]; Alma redemptoris mater [4.17]; Hodie nobis de caelo [5.09]
The Choir of Royal Holloway
The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble/Rupert Gough
rec. St. Alban’s Church, Holborn, London, 5-7 January 2012
HYPERION CDA67945 [71.59]
 
It was well over a decade again that I wrote a review of Peter Philips’ Eighteen motets from the composer’s 1612 collection ‘Cantiones Sacrae Quinus Vocibus’. This had been recorded by The Sarum Consort under Andrew Mackay (ASV CDA 217). In that review I expressed the wish that cathedrals would look more favourably on Peter Philips’ many motets and not just on ‘Ascendit Deus’, wheeled out annually for Ascensiontide. Anyway the 350th anniversary of his birth went by with next-to nothing except for a BBC Radio 3 Early Music show. So why is he overlooked?
 
I suspect it may be something to do with the fact that it is because he was an Englishman composing during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, being a Roman Catholic who lived and studied in both Italy and the Low Countries and whose compositions are all in Latin and often designed for Feasts to the Virgin or Corpus Christi. Consequently, and because there are so many other outstanding composers of that era, Philips’ music was not thought, and may still not be thought, quite useful or appropriate for the English liturgical practice. Of the sixteen pieces recorded here out of the entire collection of thirty, four are for Marian feast days, two for Corpus Christi and others for various confessors and saints not really recognized by British cathedrals.
 
We are left to appreciate his music through recordings and this is certainly a fine one. I believe it to be the first time that a Philips disc has also included a Sackbut and Cornett ensemble. Right from the start, with the impressive Benedictus Deus noster, the ensemble makes its presence felt in a glorious way. It is in the motets for double choir or for soloists against the choir that the ensemble seems to be just about right.
 
In his extensive booklet essay Lionel Pike gives us a career resumé of the composer and even finds space to contribute a brief comment about each of the works. In ‘A note on the performances’ Rupert Gough explains that he wanted “to experiment with a multitude of approaches” in the distribution of voices and instruments. This means that the disc has variety from piece to piece as well as the clever placing of contrasting moods. For example track 2 the elegant O Quam suavis is followed by Jubilate Deo omnis terra. There are also two organ solos using the Whitsun plainchant Veni Creator and Veni Spiritus.
 
In fact Philips uses plainchant in many of these pieces, as in the Regina Caeli. Thios practice was more a characteristic of the earlier renaissance although the Venetian spirit of antiphonal choirs doubled by instruments seems to be pointing towards the baroque. Roman influence is also strong as in the Alma redemptoris mater. Philips is shown therefore to be straddling the gap between these eras. After this publication Philips was to produce five more books of various pieces, some with figured bass in the more modern style.
 
Perhaps the motet I found most moving was Caecilia virgo, the longest recorded here. It is harmonically rich and movingly expressive with a proliferation of memorably contrasting ideas. It also serves as a reminder that Philips almost began his composing career as a madrigalist. This work contrasts a higher group of voices with a lower; this is a very sensitive performance.
 
I will pinpoint just four other motets which I found striking both musically and from the performance angle.
 
The setting of Jubilate Deo could be a regular repertoire piece being a setting of Psalm 100 for double choir. It includes effective changes from duple to triple metre and the instruments add to the festive atmosphere. The following, easy-going Benedictus Dominus pits a solo group against the full choir but with a soprano part descanting around and above. The latter is played wonderfully on the cornet. The balance may seem a little odd compared with other tracks but its quite deliberate and very effective.
 
Also very effective and bright in mood is Gaudens Gaudebo with the main choir echoing and overlapping with the small one and vice versa. The text for general use is from Isaiah 61. Philips’ style is open and avoids chromaticisms - anything that might have been reminiscent of Gesualdo or even Monteverdi at his most experimental. He generally favours the major modes.
 
Beati estis also contrasts slow-moving harmonies with livelier ones as they are passed between the two equal choirs with much syncopation. The text ‘Rejoice and be glad/for your reward is great in heaven’ is especially emphasised as is the more homophonic Alleluia.
 
Although I sometimes found myself wondering about the balance between the two choirs I have concluded that what Rupert Gough has done with the choral spacings and instrumental participation - they are often central in the stereo image - works well. The words have clarity and the voices are crystal clear, the soloists are vocally pure and there is never a blemish in intonation.
 
This disc will speak strongly to anyone with an interest in church music and should help to promote Peter Philips’ profile in the rarefied world of late renaissance church music.
Gary Higginson
 

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