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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]
Sebastián de VIVANCO (c.1551-1622) Versa est in luctum [5:47]
Fernando de las INFANTAS (1534-c.1610) Quasi stella matutina [8:18]
Bartolomé de ESCOBEDO (c.1505-1563) Missa Philippus Rex Hispaniæ [30:50]
Alonso LOBO (1555-1617) Versa est in luctum [4:54]
Libera me, Domine [9:29]
Westminster Cathedral Choir/James O’Donnell
rec. 5-6, 9-10 February 1998. DDD.
Texts and translations included.
Experience Classicsonline

This recording was originally released in 1998 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of King Philip II of Spain. Though its composer is hardly a household name - of those represented here, only Alonso Lobo has a claim to be well known - the main work, Escobedo’s Missa Philippus Rex Hispaniæ, also appeared almost simultaneously on Auvidis Astrée, performed by A Sei Voci (E8640), a more robust performance with the accompaniment of cornets and sackbutts, which some reviewers preferred, while others recommended the more sober Hyperion performance. The competition didn’t prevent this Hyperion recording from winning a number of well-deserved awards.

Though little known, Escobedo’s music certainly deserves to be heard. The neglect of his Philip II Mass prior to 1998 is entirely attributable to the fact that the manuscript was almost indecipherable until modern techniques were applied.

The Astrée recording seems no longer to be available, though the Agnus Dei and Ave Maria from it feature on an A Sei Voci compilation CD (E8892), so we have all the more reason to be grateful for the reappearance of the Hyperion at such an inexpensive price. I haven’t heard the rival version, with its faster tempi, but I can’t imagine that it improves on the Westminster performance. I’ve just recommended - strongly recommended - the latest collaboration between the Cathedral and Hyperion, a new recording by the Lay Clerks of Victoria’s Missa Gaudeamus (CDA67748 - see review). I’ve extolled at some length the wonderful blend of English-choral-tradition accuracy and Southern-European intensiveness which Matthew Martin and his singers achieve but, in truth, that combination was largely the work of James O’Donnell, their director on the current recording.

That isn’t to say, of course, that no-one else should interpret Italian and Hispanic music of this period. Another product of the 1998 anniversary was a wonderful recording by The Sixteen of English and Spanish music associated with the marriage of Philip to Mary I of England, reissued on Coro COR16037 - see the review in my October 2008 Download Roundup.

I’ve also followed my review of the download of the new Westminster Victoria recording in my August 2009 Download Roundup, with an appreciation of the way in which Anglican choirs have also recently adapted their style to suit Southern European music of this period, not least the choir of Christ Church, Oxford, under Stephen Darlington in their 1993 recording of Victoria’s Masses Dum Complerentur and Simile est Regnum Cœlorum (Nimbus NI5434). Immediately prior to writing this review I’ve also been listening with enjoyment to their stylish recording of the Lassus Masses Qual donna and Jäger/Venatorum and Motets (NI5150), recorded a full decade before the Westminster CD, in 1988.

My only reservation in recommending this Hyperion reissue is that another excellent Westminster Cathedral/O’Donnell recording is due to be reissued on 1 September 2009 - it will probably be available by the time that you read this review - of Francisco Guerrero’s ‘Battle’ Mass (Missa de la batalla escoutez) and other works (Hyperion Helios CDH55340; expect a review in my October Download Roundup). It’s got the instrumental accompaniment (from His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts), too, which made some reviewers prefer that Astrée version of the Escobedo Mass.

If you are in the market for just one recording of Spanish music from this period, go for that, or the earlier Westminster/O’Donnell reissue of Guerrero’s music on Hyperion Helios CDH55313 which I recommended last year (Missa Sancta et immaculata, etc. - see review). Otherwise, purchasing all three will hardly break the bank, at around £6 each, and they will form the basis of a first-class collection of 16th-century religious music by Spanish composers. Leaving the wonderful Victoria, as an Italian domiciled in Spain, out of consideration for the moment.

Those minor considerations aside, the current CD may be confidently recommended. Philip II’s tastes may have been austere, but this is music guaranteed to lift you out of yourself, very well performed and recorded and luxuriously presented, with excellent notes from Bruno Turner and Anthony Fiumara, all at a budget price. Whether a beginner in 16th-century polyphony or well versed in the style, you could do much worse than to spend a relaxing and spiritual hour in the company of this recording. Even if your liking is for music from a later period, remember that it is possible to like both - the fact that I’m listening in rapt admiration to Véronique Gens singing Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne and Triptyque as I complete this review (Volume 2, Naxos 8.570338), and would urge you to buy that, too, in no way diminishes my love of polyphony.

Brian Wilson


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