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CD: Soundboard


Peter PHILIPS (1560/1-1628)
The English Exile
Pavana dolorosa (1593) (Fitzwilliam Virgin Book 80) [7:30]
Galliarda dolorosa (1593?) (Fitzwilliam 81)
Pavana (‘The first one Philips made’) (1580) (Fitzwilliam 85)
Galliardo (Fitzwilliam 87)
Cosi moriro (Fitzwilliam 72)
Le Rossignuol (1595) (Fitzwilliam 86)
Margott Laborez (1605) (Fitzwilliam 83)
Amarylli di Giulio Romano (1603) (Fitzwilliam 82)
Fantasia (Fitzwilliam 84)
Pavana Pagget (Fitzwilliam 74)
Galliarda Pagget (Fitzwilliam 75)
Pavana pasamezzzo (1592) (Fitzwilliam 76)
Galliarda passamezzo (Fitzwilliam 77)
Fantasia (1582) (Fitzwilliam 88)
Colin Booth (harpsichord)
rec. Dillington House, Ilminster, Somerset, England, 31st August and 1st September, 1999.  DDD.
Soundboard sbcd992 [65:25]
Experience Classicsonline

Another cherished misconception bites the dust: hitherto I had thought of Peter Philips only as a composer of music for the Roman Catholic liturgy, chiefly found in the two collections of Cantiones sacrĉ; now I recall that he was also an important composer of instrumental music worthy to be compared with Dowland or his fellow exile (eventually) John Bull.  The present collection of about two thirds of the Philips works contained in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book contains music which Colin Booth describes in the booklet as ‘most beautiful and immediately attractive.’  I concur; everything here is well worth hearing in these performances.
This recording has already been reviewed on Musicweb, as long ago as 2000, by Rob Barnett, the classical editor – see review.  It’s come my way now as a result of my receiving another of Colin Booth’s recordings (Restoration: Treasures of the English Baroque, with Jette Rosendal, CDK1002 – see review) and my expressing an interest in some of his earlier ventures.  RB admitted that he wasn’t an expert on Elizabethan music – though he’s probably forgotten more about 20th-century English composers than I ever knew and I’ve found his advice concerning the likes of Bax invaluable.  I can, perhaps, claim a little more expertise in this area on the slim basis of a London University MA in Renaissance Studies; I certainly endorse Rob’s opinion that this recital is definitely worth exploring.
Though he taught the virginals in Antwerp from about 1590 onwards, his keyboard style remained English; as the Oxford Companion to Music neatly puts it, ‘Philips was an Englishman in his keyboard music, but a continental in his vocal works’.  Whereas we frequently suspect that terms such as ‘dolorous’ were used for effect in the late 16th and early 17th century, as in Downland’s regular puns on his own name (semper Downland, semper dolens – Dowland is always dolorous), Philips appears to have had good cause to write in a melancholy vein: not only did he live all but the first 20 years of his life in exile, he was briefly imprisoned in The Hague on suspicion of plotting against Queen Elizabeth. 
Booth’s dates, which I have mainly followed above, ascribe the Pavana doloroso (track1 – the titles in the Fitzwilliam book appear to demonstrate a typical English insouciance about the gender of foreign nouns and adjectives) to that experience of 1593 and it is probable that the Galliarda dolorosa also dates from that period.   Whether or not we are entitled to assume that the experience makes the music more ‘genuine’, these are certainly impressive pieces and they make an excellent opening to the programme.
This is not the only recording exclusively devoted to Philips’ keyboard music, and individual items are available elsewhere.  There is a 2-CD complete set on Dabringhaus und Grimm (Siegbert Rampe, MDG341 1257-2 and MDG341 1435-2) where the performances are divided among harpsichord, clavichord and organ.  A CD of the keyboard music of Byrd on the Alpha label, entitled Pescodd Time, includes Philips’ Pavana Dolorosa and Galliarda Dolorosa (Alpha 016); you may initially think Bertrand Cuiller’s rather livelier tempi for these two pieces more exciting, until you remember that their titles indicate the opposite of lively.
On another Alpha recording entitled Bara Faustus’ Dreame: Mr Francis Tregian his choice, (Alpha 063) Les Witches perform the same two pieces, dashing them off even more rapidly.  Neither of these Alpha recordings seems to me to capture the essential dolorousness of the music – it seems entirely lacking from Les Witches’ performance of the Galliarda Dolorosa and almost as completely lacking from Cuiller’s account of the same work, though his middle way with the Pavana Dolorosa strikes me as a useful middle way, where Colin Booth is perhaps a little too close to the lugubrious.
Surprisingly, Elizabeth Farr’s Naxos recital devoted entirely to Philips’ keyboard works (8.557864, recorded in 2003) does not contain these two best-known pieces.  (Is a second volume planned?)  She does, however, include a number of other items on the Soundboard recording, including the Pavana of 1580.
If we are correct in accepting the ascription of that Pavana (track 3) as Philips’ first, composed in 1580 before he went into exile, it might have been more logical for both collections to have begun with it; though it is less striking than the two works of 1593, it is still a cut above the ordinary.  I haven’t been able to hear the whole of Farr’s performance of that piece, only the opening section, but her approach is very similar to that of Booth and their timings are almost identical (Soundboard 3:41, Naxos 3:27). 
The same is true of the Pavana and Galliarda Pagget.  My colleague Paul Shoemaker liked Farr’s Naxos recording enough to convince me that those opening snippets which I have been able to hear are representative of her performances overall – see review.  Glyn Pursglove was, if anything, even more enthusiastic – see review.
The inevitable question ‘what if?’ must be asked – suppose Philips’ talent had been recognised in England at an earlier date and his recusancy tolerated as that of Tallis and Byrd was, would his keyboard style have developed as it did?  The Fantasia of 1582 (tr.14) suggests that it was already developing in a very promising manner just before or just after he embarked on his journey of exile.  Here Farr is slightly slower than Booth, emphasising the dreamlike nature of the work where he concentrates on its virtuosity – the title may imply either and both approaches seem valid, bearing in mind that I’ve been able to hear only part of Farr’s interpretation.  I believe that Booth was right to end his recital with this display of keyboard virtuosity.
Elizabeth Farr performs the music on an interesting instrument, built in Rome in 1658 and restored by Keith Hill.  Colin Booth plays an even more interesting instrument – one which he made himself in hia ‘day job’ as maker of keyboard instruments.  The instrument, illustrated in the booklet, is a copy of an Italian original, tuned to a=392, well below ‘normal’ ‘baroque’ pitch, and meantone-tuned.  All of this works very well for me, though I have to admit that I am totally devoid of the sense of absolute pitch which I have always envied in my violinist and cellist friends.  If your idea of a harpsichord is of a clangorous instrument, think again; this certainly isn’t.
With very good recording and a most informative booklet, professionally produced – no sense of cottage-industry here – this recording may be recommended with confidence.  We no longer award stars, but, if we did, I’d stretch RB’s original four stars to ****(*).
The recording can be obtained direct from Soundboard Records and Colin Booth can be contacted by email.
Brian Wilson

see also review by Rob Barnett



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