Peter Phillips Cantiones Sacrae 1612 (Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge/Richard Marlow) Review

Released 2010.  

BBC Review

This feels like choral perfection… Fabulous stuff.

Charlotte Gardner 2010

Whilst the mixed-voice Choir of Trinity College needs little introduction, their chosen composer for this disc possibly does. Incredibly though, whilst Peter Philips is a relatively neglected composer these days, he was, after William Byrd, the most-published English composer of the Elizabethan-Jacobean age. This disc amply demonstrates why, thanks in no small part to a stunning performance from the Trinity Choir.

Philips trained as a choirboy at St Paul's Cathedral, and may even have studied keyboard with Byrd. However, he was a Catholic, and in 1582 felt obliged to flee to Europe out of fear of religious persecution. He was just 21, and he remained abroad for the rest of his life. The bitterness he felt at his predicament evidently didn't ease with the years. In 1593, it seems there was enough treasonous smoke wafting around him for him to be accused of plotting against Elizabeth I and arrested, even though he was later exonerated. By the time he wrote these Cantiones Sacrae in 1612, the wounds obviously still felt raw, for he declared them to be for “the consolation and salvation of the Christian people, the confirmation and amplification of the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman faith, and the extirpation and confusion of heresy and heretics”. Ouch.

However, the exile may have actually done him a favour, as the musical language he developed as a result is an exciting amalgamation of English, Spanish and Italian styles, with rebellious religious fervour his driving force. Key among Philips' favourite compositional devices is antiphony, so his five-voice choir is continually subdivided into groups of contrasting sizes which call and answer each other. Trinity Choir has performed these musical conversations with a beautiful sense of balance, and the good stuff continues: their overall sound is warm and blended, with a soprano section sounding sweetly pure yet mature of tone. Ornamentation is sharply defined and lightly executed, and they have a wonderfully expansive dynamic and emotional range. Furthermore, it would be impossible to find a choir that could better their sheer togetherness of attack. The warmly subtle acoustic of Trinity College chapel provides the final gloss on what already feels like choral perfection. Fabulous stuff.

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