Martin PEERSON (c.1572-1651) A Treatie of Humane Love - Mottects or Grave Chamber Music (1630)
Fretwork I Fagiolini/Robert Hollingsworth James Johnstone (organ)
rec. February 2016, National Centre for Early Music, York REGENT REGCD497 [72:33]
In the last few decades an increasing interest has been quietly emerging in the music of Martin Peerson. As suggested by his dates, Peerson can be seen, alongside the Lawes brothers, as a transitory figure between the age of Queen Elizabeth and the Restoration.
The extensive and fascinating booklet essay for this Regent CD is by Richard Rastell who has also edited the music. Gavin Alexander helpfully lists the four Peerson discs that have emerged - discs which I find I have on my shelves. They are The Wren Baroque Soloists (Collins 14372, issued 1994) who have recorded a mixture of twenty pieces from Peerson’s two collections of 1620 and 1630. In 2014 Ex Cathedra recorded fifteen Latin motets - unpublished in the composer’s lifetime - on Hyperion (CDA67490), which I reviewed at the time. In 2007 the choir of Selwyn College Cambridge under Sarah MacDonald shared a disc of English anthems (‘A Candle to the Glorious Sun’) by Peerson with thirteen by John Milton, the father of the poet (Regent REGCD268).
No pieces by Peerson appeared in print until he was almost forty. This followed the usual practice of composers waiting until they had a substantial number to put into a collection. In all, Peerson published about fifty pieces, none in Latin and there were no instrumental works. Other occasional pieces came out in anthology-type publications, some as early as 1614. He also contributed to the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book four little keyboard works, all perhaps a little immature but each quite well known like ‘The fall of a leaf’. That book can be dated sometime between 1600 and 1610 but contains pieces from a generation previous. It has been said that it was compiled by Francis Treggian, a known recusant Catholic and it contains much music by composers who were known Catholics: Byrd but also Peter Philips whose conscience made him work abroad including in Italy. Was Peerson a Catholic and was that why his Latin works only survive in a single manuscript source owned by an obscure Suffolk family? I digress in the need to pull together a few thoughts about the composer as he is beginning to be understood.
Peerson said that both his publications were “Apt for Voices and Viols” so that is exactly what Robert Hollingsworth and I Fagiolini do and for each motet/madrigal the various performers are listed. You must keep the printed texts to hand as they attempt to sing in the authentic pronunciation of the period. You may well ask, how do we know what it was like or why do they do it? The ‘how’ is more straightforward as the mutation of language is being studied various educated guesses can place vowel sounds of the period fairly accurately but the 'why' … Well, I don’t know and for myself, I don’t especially like what I hear with the pulling around of sounds and the unfamiliar use of vowels which takes away the beauty of the actual notes.
The majority of the pieces can’t really be styled 'madrigals' as they are in the nature of duets or solos, with a chorus or refrain in which additional voices are added. Uniquely, a figured bass is printed in the score which, as Richard Rastell points out, was more in the Italian style. The organ part is the first organ score to be printed in England and finally it is only major songbook in England to be devoted to one poet.
What of the poems, an appreciation of which is vital to the overall understanding of Peerson’s compositions? They are by Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (1554-1628) courtier, diplomat, MP and poet who, as can be seen, died - murdered in fact - before Peerson’s collection was printed. One wonders if Brooke was able to have any input into which poems or parts thereof Peerson should set, especially as in some cases, various verses are missing.
Brooke gradually compiled a vast collection of 103 poems, which he called ‘Caelica’ (possibly meaning ‘Heavenly’). Peerson selected thirteen. Some he divided into two or three sections (as tracked here), setting each stanza separately, hence there are twenty-five tracks. The poems are difficult and again to quote Rastell they seem to “forge connections between spheres political, religious and ethical”. A case is made out however that Peerson’s text choices move from ideal love at the start of the set, through heavenly love, ending with a farewell to Love and to Queen Elizabeth. It’s for this reason that I especially regret I Fagiolini’s decision to use Jacobean pronunciation which makes the poetry even harder to grasp and follow.
That said, the singing is otherwise expressive and sensitive with lovely dynamic contrasts. Much of Peerson’s writing although often polyphonic and complex is penetrating and sometimes dramatic with vivid word-painting. If I had to pick out one track it would be ‘Love is the peace’ which strongly encapsulates both the poetry and Peerson’s style. “Perfections spirit, Goddesse of the minde/passed through hope, desire, griefe and feare” – beautiful, but what does it mean?
I’m sorry that I can’t be more enthusiastic because the recording of a complete publication like this, by an English Elizabethan/Jacobean composer is all too sadly rare. I will say though, to end, that the booklet is superb, the texts clear and detailed and the recording is of the highest quality.
Gary Higginson Track-listing
1. Love, the delight [3:32]
2. Beautie her cover is [3:04]
3. Time faine would stay [1:46]
4. More than most faire [3:12]
5. Thou window of the skie [2:57]
6. You little starres [1:04]
7. And thou, O Love [3:04]
8. O Love, thou mortall speare [2:52]
9. If I by nature [2:30]
10. Cupid, my prettie boy [2:52]
11. Love is the peace [2:43]
12. Selfe pitties teares [3:48]
13. Was ever man so matcht with boy? [2:21]
14. O false and treacherous probabilitie [4:08]
15. Man, dreame no more [1:43]
16. The flood that did/When thou hast swept [3:40]
17. Who trusts for trust [3:40]
18. Who thinks that sorrows felt [2:35]
19. Man, dreame no more [4:33]
20. Farewell, sweet boye [3:01]
21. Under a throne [3:37]
22. Where shall a sorrow [2:01]
23. Dead, noble Brooke [1:59]
24. Where shall a sorrow (a6) [2:48]
25. Dead, noble Brooke (a6) [3:22]