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Peter Philips in Exile

This article was first published at The Classical Review on November 2, 2011.

available at Amazon
Peter Philips: An Englishman Abroad, Convivium Singers, A. Norman
English musician Peter Philips (1560-1628), unwilling to give up his Catholic faith in a society officially opposed to it, fled his native country in his twenties. Philips was not protected by the powerful, as William Byrd was, and decided not to compromise by composing music for the state-supported Anglican church and living a secret life. Like many Catholic refugees from England, he found his way to the Catholic court of Archduke Albert and his wife, Isabella, in Brussels, who were renowned patrons of the arts (among others they supported, Peter Paul Rubens was appointed their court painter). Philips’s liturgical music was not copied into the books used by choirs in England and remained largely unknown there until more recently.

Scholar Kristine K. Forney, writing about music in the Netherlands in the early 17th century in James Haar’s book European Music, 1520-1640, described Philips as one of the composers active in the Netherlands who helped make the transition in Catholic music from equal-voiced polyphony to the monodic style then in vogue in Italy. Philips likely heard early examples of this music during his brief stay in Rome, working in the English College, in the 1580s. While in Brussels, he composed three volumes of motets in the new monodic style, as well as new settings of French popular tunes, fitted to Catholic devotional texts for the education of children. Philips also served as court organist, but almost none of his liturgical works for organ survive.

This new disc is the latest in a burgeoning series by the English group, Convivium Singers, a mixed-voice choir formed in 2009, on their own self-published label. This mid-sized ensemble is composed of nearly 40 choristers from many British church programs and professional choral groups, and they have a lovely, well-balanced sound -- larger than the sort of group Philips had to work with in most cases. The selection of motets here is drawn largely from the composer’s best-known collection, Cantiones sacrae quinis vocibus (1612), motets for five voices in the old polyphonic style, likely to be among the pieces one has heard if one has ever heard any music by Philips.

The strongest performances here are from this collection, with all sections sounding equally beautiful, with instances of individual voices protruding or infelicities of intonation all extremely minor, easy to overlook and rare. With Latin texts appropriate to a broad range of feasts throughout the year, for both temporale and sanctorale feasts, this is a source of interesting polyphony for choir masters everywhere.

The large size of the ensemble is a bonus in the three motets from the Cantiones sacrae octonis vocibus (1613), in the Roman double-choir style familiar in the work of Marenzio and others, giving the broad textures a bigger, full-bodied sound. There are also four motets from the composer’s late collection Paradisus sacris cantionibus (1628), a vast assortment of the solo and ensemble motets in the monodic style. This includes experimentation with the setting of chant psalm tones (as in Confitebor tibi domine), as well as the incorporation of virtuosic vocal writing, featuring especially the lovely soprano voice of Penelope Appleyard in the most pleasing solo outing, O Maria domina nostra. Director Alexander Norman, who also contributes a fine liner essay, provides effective continuo realization at the organ on two tracks (with David Price accompanying on four others) with the resonant acoustic of Birmingham’s church of St. Alban the Martyr providing a gorgeous cushion for voices and organ.

Philips is not exactly unknown on disc, but in many cases his music has been recorded in a piecemeal fashion. The combination here of these three principal collections, in the many styles of which Philips is a neglected master, makes this an attractive introduction to the composer’s synthesis of styles at the cusp between the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

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