Sunday, August 23, 2009

Portuguese sacred music performed at the Queen's College, Oxford UK

The Coro de Santa Maria de Belem, Lisbon, Portugal, a mixed choir of 40 singers, was established in 1990 in order to take part in the weekly Solemn Mass of the Church of Jeronimos. Under its founder and conductor Fernando Pinto, the choir’s mission is to perform, teach and keep alive the immense musical heritage of the place in which it was created. The Coro de Santa Maria de Belem was in England for a summer concert tour of five concerts and performed a program Portuguese music in the chapel of the Queen’s College Oxford on August 2nd, 2009. The exquisite chapel, noted for its excellent Frobenius organ, was consecrated by the Archbishop of York in 1719 and has stood virtually unchanged since being built.

The program opened with Missa Veni Sponsa Christi and Nos Autem Gloriari Oportat by Manuel Cardoso (1566-1650), most of whose career was spent as resident composer and organist at the Carmelite Convento do Carmo in Lisbon. In these works, both a cappella in the Palestrinian polyphonic style, sections were dynamically contrasted, sometimes by the thinning out of forces, with energy invested in articulate contrapuntal textures, clean vowel- and consonant changes. The choir’s luxuriant sound, unmarred by vibrato, rang into the building’s structure. These pieces were followed by a moving and spiritual performance of the Spanish-Portuguese composer Estevao Lopes Morago’s (c.1575-1630) motet “Oculi mei”, in which the composer’s expressiveness is formed by dissonance and harmonic audacity. Also representing the golden age of Portuguese polyphony, Duarte Lobo (c.1565-1646) was the most famous composer of his time in Portugal. The choir performed his “Pater peccavi”, a motet which quotes the soggetto ostinato (a brief melodic unit reiterated persistently in the same voice) from Josquin’s “Miserere mei Deus” as a fourfold ostinato in the superius.

In the 1600’s, Lisbon and Evera were places of musical excellence. Don Joao IV, himself a composer, nurtured the arts, protected and promoted his musicians encouraging them to develop their originality. Among them was Diogo Duas Melgaz (1638-1700). The choir performed his “Popule meus”. Joao Rodrigues Esteves (1700-c.1751) was a key practitioner of Latin sacred composition in Lisbon, the majority of his writing in the stile antico style. The choir gave his “Regina Caeli” an articulate and joyful reading. Composer and organist Francisco Antonio de Almeida flourished from 1722 to 1752. Like Esteves, he may have perished in the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon. A composer of vocal music, he composed the first Italian-style opera in Portugal. In “Miserere quatuor vocibus” the chant was presented pleasingly by a tenor member of choir, the overall effect of the work uplifting.

We heard three organ solos played by Sergio Silva, teacher and titular organist of the Basilica of Estrela and at the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus at Telhal. Elements of virtuosity of style and use of dissonance were present in the forthright “Obra de Primeiro tom sobre a Salve Regina” by Pedro de Araujo (1662-1705). Silva also performed Carlos Seixas’ (1704-1742) Organ Sonata in G major, showing the main interest to be in its melodic lines. In a very different vein, we heard “Choral” by composer, teacher, musicologist and critic Luis de Freitas Branco (1890-1955), a leading figure in Portuguese musical life who had introduced Impressionism and Expressionism into his country’s music. He also researched Portuguese Baroque composers, publishing a book on the musical works of King John IV of Portugal (referred to above as Don Joao IV.) An expressive piece, its somber opening leads into a number of sections – some bold and brassy, others veiled, bluesy and autumnal. Making fine use of the organ’s different timbres, this mood piece boasts an interesting duality; Silva infused it with color and life.

Remaining in the 20th century, we heard two of “Three Songs Without Words”(1998) by Eurico Carrapatoso (b.1962). Written for 4-part mixed choir, the first explored sounds of resonant humming, with closed- and later open mouths. The second was a joyful play of vowels, undisturbed by words. Back in the realm of sacred music, the concert ended with Manuel Faria’s (1916-1983) introspective “Sangue de Cristo”, a motet woven of a lush harmonic language peppered with dissonances, expressive and spiritual. This was surely a celebration of the human voice.

Conductor and organist Fernando Pinto, a native of Lisbon, has specialized in the performance of sacred music, his professional life revolving around the Coro de Santa Maria, with which he has worked since 1990. The choir has a large repertoire, has performed widely and has made recordings. Pinto’s work is profound and detailed, his singers showing a deep understanding of both the musical- and verbal text. Their performance was superb.

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