The English composer Peter Philips lived from 1560 (or 1561) to 1628. He spent most of his life in mainland Europe, an exile from (potential) religious persecution… he was a Roman Catholic in Elizabeth I's Protestant England. Although in early life he was surrounded by English cathedral music (St. Paul's, London), his music anyway shows strong European influences. Indeed the broad, extrovert, confident and exultant yet bounded music we hear on this CD from Hyperion by alto soloists Louise Laprun and Felicity Turner, Gawain Glenton (cornett) and organist/director Rupert Gough with the Royal Holloway Choir and The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble is redolent of the Gabrielis, Schütz and even Monteverdi in places.
Yet in these performances Philips' style has a felicitous blend of gentleness and assertion. The anti-phonic "Alleluias" in Regina caeli laetare à 8 [tr.9], for instance, are open and full of momentum. It's usually (a few motets from the) five-voice Cantiones sacrae of 1612 that are best known from this corner of Philips' music. Here we are treated to his richer and fuller – yet equally focused – eight-voice motets, published in the following year. A second edition appeared in 1625 when a basso continuo was added. It's a collection of some 30 motets (presumably composed over a number of years preceding) dedicated to St. Peter, surely in recognition of the standing and presence of the saint in Philips' then adopted city. Cantiones sacrae octonis vocibus are works for two choirs to be sung at various times throughout the liturgical year. It was a Venetian tradition, of course, to differentiate more markedly between the material given to each choir. These motets by Philips are more Roman in that respect; there is less overtly and sustained contrasting antiphony.
This recording also emphasizes the composer's avoidance of the chromaticism and dissonance that marked the Northern Italian style. In that sense, this CD is less expansive, less an acoustic feast than many such of music by Philips' contemporaries. His polyphony emphasizes the harmonic over the flamboyantly contrapuntal. Indeed, it's tempting to hear the influence of Philips' apparently favorite composer, Marenzio, in the somewhat inward-focused madrigal style of some of these works. They're not miniatures. But they're not spuriously grand or spectacular. Though their allure and beauty are not in the least diminished. Listen to the delicacy, grace and insight of Alma redemptoris mater à 8 [tr.15], for example. Like the other music on this compelling CD, it's music full of devotion, self-confidence and dedication to the marriage which Renaissance composers saw as so necessary between text and imprecation. Similarly, the three versions (chanted, for cornett and then organ) of the Veni Sancte Spiritus [tr.5] are lightly laid upon our expectant ears. Nothing is imposed. The offering is not reticent. But the sonic impact in these voices' and instrumentalists' approach comes from the inner light which Philips allows to inspire the phrasing, different dynamics and simple yet effectively memorable melody.
The CD's producers have added to the music's effectiveness by alternating moods. The buoyant follows the meek. The tonally extrovert the tentative. Although the voices of the Royal Holloway Choir in particular convey great dedication, there's nothing over-examined or dry about their presentation of the music. It's certainly an explicitly collaborative undertaking. The choice of instrumental accompaniment is deliberate and has been arrived at carefully. It fits with the Catholic "triumphalism" which non-detractors would, no doubt, characterize as "joyfulness". By the same token, use is made of solo voices and subdivisions of the choir's full numbers for effect and contrast. Add to this the variation in musical spirit which pervades this selection from Philips' lovely music and this is a CD very much to return to repeatedly for layers of meaning and enjoyment each time.
The singing of the Royal Holloway Choir has all the realism, presence and vibrancy that one feels is needed for this music. Neither over-polished nor rough at the edges, there is an accomplished realism yet appropriate suaveness to their delivery which emphasizes an unostentatious musically resplendent articulation of the texts. At full force the choir comprises 30 singers: nine sopranos, six altos, six tenors and nine bases. This makes for a rich sound. But not an overwhelming one. It may seem to some listeners that there is a slight lack of character, personality, color in the choir's sound. Some of the works that perhaps Italian choirs would infuse with greater zest here are sung with restraint and a more linear delivery. But with no less delight and commitment for that. Although Hodie nobis de caelo [tr.16], for example, is celebratory as performed here it has an almost anticlimactic pace at the end of the CD. Others will find the music emerges as stately and measured, rather than underplayed.
The acoustic (of St. Alban's church, Holborn, London) is contained, if appropriately resonant. Nothing is lost of the reverberance that helps to bring out the character of the music. The smaller organ works benefit from this closeness, this intimacy, almost, as much as the larger choral pieces: a nice balance. Above all, the atmosphere allows the music to expand and stretch as it needs to. The booklet contains a useful biography of this neglected composer who led such an interesting life; for even when in the Netherlands he was arrested and unable completely to enjoy religious freedom. The texts are reproduced in Latin and English; there is informative background on the performers.
Peter Philips should be better known. His music is uplifting, reflective, maturely-conceived and written. What it lacks, perhaps, in uninhibited joy or exuberance, it more than makes up for in rich, intense color and confidently-honed textures which quietly re-inforce Philips' confessional bravery and resultant sense of achievement. This CD adds to our appreciation of this achievement. With barely half a dozen CDs devoted entirely to his music, this must become a standard. As a complement, the New Zealand Tudor Consort conducted by Peter Walls on Naxos 8.555056 has recorded a collection of 5-voice motets. That CD, too, is worth a listen. This latest collection from Hyperion, though, is to be recommended especially for its happy blend of precision and impact with music that's never unduly demonstrative yet which appeals to the exultant more by its substance (the use of text rather than instrumentation, for example) than its aura.
Copyright © 2013, Mark Sealey