After some centuries in the outer darkness Peter Philips (c. 1560/1-1628) is at last getting some notice. This is the fourth disc of his music to make it onto my shelves, and it enhances a reputation that ought to reach much wider than it does. Peter Holman's notes with this new release – as nicely turned and informative as ever – attributes his neglect to "an unattractive form of musical chauvinism that works to the disadvantage of émigrés. He left England at an early age, never to return, so he has been largely ignored by English musicologists; equally, he has been treated as a foreigner by their colleagues in his adopted country, the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium)."
Philips' life is swiftly told. The first surviving reference to him is as a choirboy at St. Paul's Cathedral; eight years later he crops up in the will of Sebastian Westcote, the Catholic almoner of St. Paul's (the almoner was responsible for the music and the choirboys). After Westcote's death Philips, a Catholic, fled his native land and, after a spell in Rome as organist of the English College (until 1585), entered the service of the Catholic exile Lord (Thomas) Paget, as part of whose entourage he went to Spain, France and the Netherlands. On Paget's death in 1590, he stayed in Antwerp where he married and "got his lyvyng by teachinge of children on instruments." In 1593 he traveled to Holland to hear Sweelinck and on his return fell ill in the town of Middleburg, on Zealand, whereupon he was denounced by a fellow Englishman for plotting against Queen Elizabeth, imprisoned in The Hague in September and exonerated a month or so afterwards (though it is true that Charles Paget, the brother of his former patron, was a well-known spy). Four years later Philips entered the service of Archbishop Albert in Brussels, where he remained until his death.
The bulk of Philips' keyboard music (nineteen pieces) survives in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, compiled by his fellow Catholic and friend Francis Tregian the Younger, and Paul Nicholson gives a generous selection of it here, several of them in the slow-fast dance-form of pavan and galliard. Although it is Hyperion who have done most to re-establish Philips' reputation on CD, with this recording of keyboard works following discs of consort music (CDA66240) and church music (CDA66643), it was Etcetera who, as far as I am aware, were first on the scene, releasing a recital by Anneke Uittenbosch in 1985 (KTC 1022). In the four pieces that feature on both discs – the Pavana and Galliarda Dolorosa, Fantasia in G Major, Passamezzo Pavan and Galliard and the Pavan 1580 – Nicholson emerges as the stronger player: he finds that touch more tension, that edge of nobility missing in Uittenbosch's otherwise excellent playing. (Nicholson also offers almost twenty-five minutes' more music.) In the mighty, chromatic Pavana and Galliarda Dolorosa in particular – dated 1593 in the Fitzwilliam Book and one of the keyboard masterworks of its age – Nicholson discovers a strength and dignity the origins of which may be explained by an annotation in another manuscript source: "composta in prigione," composed in prison, when Philips was locked up in The Hague on suspicion of spying. Many of these works also feature in arrangements for five viols on that Hyperion disc of consort music, where the strings give them a more lyrical, restrained feel and allow more contrapuntal development; here the metallic incisiveness of the harpsichord brings out more fully the music's stately, almost fierce, pride.
Strongly recommended as a step on the path to discovering one of the outstanding musicians of the late-sixteenth/early seventeenth century. But if you want to encounter Philips at his most impressive, you must try that Hyperion CD of his motets, fourteen instances of the most sheerly glorious sound you are likely to come across in years.
Copyright © 1996/1998, Martin Anderson