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Mortuus est Philippus Rex – Music for the life and death of the Spanish King
Ambrosio COTES (c.1550-1603)
Mortuus est Philippus Rex [5:34]
Sebastian de VIVANCO (c.1551-1622)
Versa est in luctum [5:47]
Don Fernande de las INFANTAS (1534-c.1610)
Quasi stella matutina [8:18]
Bartolomé de ESCOBEDO (c.1505-1563)
Missa Philippus Rex Hispaniae [30:50]
Alonso LOBO (1555-1617)
Versa est in luctum [4:54]
Libera me, Domine [9:29]
The Choir of Westminster Cathedral/James O’Donnell
rec. February 1998 (unspecified location)
Experience Classicsonline

At first glance this CD looks as though it should contain music commemorating the death of the mighty Spanish monarch, Philip II. But that’s really little more than a hook around which to orientate the pieces chosen here: only three of the works were specifically written to commemorate his death, and the others have in some cases only a loose connection to Philip himself. The disc’s real raison d’être is to showcase the reconstruction of Escobedo’s Missa Philippus Rex Hispaniae. The only surviving manuscript of the mass, written around the time of Philips’ accession to the throne in 1559, is in very poor repair in the library of the Sistine Chapel and it had been deemed indecipherable until the 1998 commemorations for the four hundredth anniversary of Philip’s death sparked scholars into action and a performing version was made. The CD booklet contains a useful note by Anthony Fiumara who produced the edition. So considering that this has connections with Philips’ accession rather than his death, it’s not surprising that it has the brightest mood of all the works on the disc. The Gloria and Credo sections in particular soar to radiant climaxes, and even the Benedictus and Agnus Dei, which begin in minor keys, end up with optimistic endings.

Only Cotes’ Mortuus est Philippus Rex and Lobo’s and Vivanco’s Versa est in luctum were expressly written to comemmorate the monarch’s passing and they are suitably large scale lamentations, the Cotes work showing its sorrow through astonishing polyphony, while the Lobo grieves quietly. Even this, though, is trumped by the dark concentration of the final work, Lobo’s Libera me, which has passages of simple plainchant alternating with intensely moving harmonic pleading. Don Fernando de las Infantas’ motet is a lively, swinging motet written to commemorate the royal family’s visit to San Jeronimo el Real in Madrid and it contains passages of great virtuosity and devotional simplicity. 

The performances here could hardly be bettered. This music is helped by using an ecclesiastical choir with boys rather than solely adult males as it takes us closer to the circumstances of each work’s premiere. The recording is helped by the way that O’Donnell seems to make the choir sound as un-English as possible: the control of the melismas and the element of distance to the voices makes the overall sound more ethereal and spiritual than, say, the sound cultivated by the Oxbridge choirs. The acoustic of the location is interesting too: the lack of a cavernous echo makes me doubt that it was recorded in Westminster Cathedral itself, and consequently the sound is closer to the ear but simultaneously deprived of locational specificity. For me it worked very well, giving the best of the ecclesiastical tradition while making it at the same time universal. The control of the long arches of sound is flawless and tuning is spot-on throughout, not always easy when every number is sung unaccompanied.

Simon Thompson

see also Review by Brian Wilson



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