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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Martin PEERSON (1572-1651)
Latin Motets: Deus omnipotens; Redemptor mundi; Pater fili paraclete; Levavi oculus meos; Ecce non dormitabit; Mulieres secentes;Christus factus est; Hora nona; Latus eius; O rex gloriae; Quid vobis videtur; O domine Jesu Christe; Laboravi in gemitu meo; Nolite ulta lagella peccatoris.
Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore
Recorded at St. Paul’s Church, New Southgate, London, January 2004
HYPERION CDA 67490 [65.33]


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If you know anything about Martin Peerson at all then it may be through the short keyboard pieces which are found in the ‘Fitzwilliam Virginal Book’ (c.1610). Pieces like ‘The Fall of a leaf’ and the longer ‘Pipers Pavan’. These are his earliest known compositions and are really rather like GCSE compositions in comparison with his later music, especially these motets.

A CD of Peerson’s music appeared on the now defunct Collins Classics label in 1994, a rather weak affair in many ways, but it did give an overall view of his work for the period c.1610 until the 1630s. It may be useful to briefly look at his other early works.

In 1614 he produced a collection entitled ‘Teares and Lamentations’, settings of verses by Sir William Leighton written whilst he was in prison. That was followed, two years later, by ‘Tristiae Remedium’, texts assembled by the Reverend Thomas Myriell, mainly using psalm texts in the English language. By now Peerson was an established composer.

In 1620 his collection ‘Private Musicke’ appeared (this is the title of the Collins CD collection), pieces which included madrigals and consort songs. Some metrical psalm tunes were published in 1621, and then a group of ‘Motets or Grave Chamber Musique’ came out almost ten years later, with texts, again in English, but with the then fashionable keyboard continuo.

His style moved on and despite fashionable developments showed significant signs of being rooted in Renaissance polyphony. However he could also be forward-looking in his often daring use of chromaticism especially seen in word-painting. This then is the point at which we come in, as it were, with the present CD.

These fifteen Latin motets, here being heard and recorded for the first time “survives in a single copy”, to quote the excellent booklet notes by Richard Rastell. It was completed around 1655-6 “but it had been started much earlier, so that Peerson’s motets could have been composed originally in the 1630s. The copy originally consisted of the five part-books but the Cantus book is now lost; the remaining four books give only an incomplete texture, and the top voice must be reconstructed”. Richard Rastell has done just that and Antico Edition now publish all fifteen complete motets.

It was an excellent idea by Jeffrey Skidmore to record the motets in their manuscript order as there is a distinct pattern to them, both harmonically and texturally. The notes again are worth quoting “Motets 1-5 have G as a final ... Motets 6-9 have A as a final; they treat Christ’s death on the cross as man’s way to salvation. The last and largest group, motets 10-15, again have G as the final. The group begins with a joyous reminder to send his Comforter and then sets out the intellectual argument for Christ as Redeemer”. So after the first five motets, including two double motets based on Psalms, we embark on the Passiontide ones culminating in ‘O Rex Gloriae’, a motet for Ascension. Then follows a Magnificat-based text, then two (of six) texts which are unique to the manuscript. Finally there is a magnificent double motet finding mankind ‘being glad in the Lord’. This has a glorious ending in triple time, the only example in the entire set.

The style of the music is deeply conservative for its period but not unlike Thomas Tomkins. I am especially reminded of this with Peerson’s quite modern use of chromaticism such as passages like ‘et fac ut tibi propter’, in motet one. This also contains very expressive suspensions on the word ‘miserere’. Word painting is far more vivid than in say Byrd or Gibbons. There are many examples but I was especially struck in motet 3 ‘Pater fili paraclete’ with the passage (in translation) ‘illumination, fount, river, spring, from whom, through whom ...’. Rather like the Portuguese composers of the 17th century, this conservatism is also reflected in the almost continuous polyphonic nature and imitative textures of the musical language which can also be intensely expressive as in motet twelve ‘O domine jesu Christe’ with its plea ‘ spare sinners, justify the faithful, have mercy and be gracious’.

The church where the recording was made is, I think, new to me, yet I must say that it has an excellent acoustic. On thing which marks off this recording for me is the wonderfully wide spacing of the voices, yet there is a real sense of an intimate atmosphere of a Roman Catholic family chapel. It must be said however that there is evidence that, as the composer worked at Westminster Abbey at the latter end of his life, these motets might well have been performed there. Interestingly the Abbey is, of course, a Royal peculiar and was answerable only to the Crown and at this time it was the open-minded Charles 1st.

Obviously the music is unknown but it does seem that Ex Cathedra have spent much time and some considerable effort on fully realizing these pieces. These are not read-throughs but proper performances sung with understanding and commitment.

All texts are given in Latin with sound and sensible translations.

A unique disc which is well worth investigating.

Gary Higginson



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