musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Portuguese polyphony

[I] "Pater Peccavi - Music of Lamentation from Renaissance Portugal"
The Marian Consort
Dir: Rory McCleery
rec: July 29 - 31, 2017, Midlothian (UK), Crichton Collegiate Church
Delphian - DCD34205 (© 2018) (52'11")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Estevão DE BRITO (c1575-1641): Heu Domine; Manuel CARDOSO (1566-1650): Lamentationes Jeremiae prophetae (Feria V in Coena Domini, Lectio II); Aires FERNANDEZ (fl 1550): Circumdederunt me; Duarte LOBO (c1565-1646): Missa Veni Domine; Pater peccavi; Filipe DE MAGALHÃES (?-1562): Commissa mea; Estevão Lopes MORAGO (c1575-1630): Commissa mea; De profundis a 4; Emendemus in melius a 4; Oculi mei semper ad Dominum a 4; Versa est in luctum a 4

Charlotte Ashley, Gwendolen Martin, soprano; Hannah Cooke, contralto; Rory McCleery, alto; Guy Cutting, tenor; Edmund Saddington, bass

[II] João Lourenço REBELO (1610-1665): "Psalmi, Magnificat & Lamentationes"
Dir: Erik Van Nevel
rec: [n.t., n.p.]
Et'cetera - KTC 1568 (R) (© 2017) (79'48")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

Cum invocarem; Laetatus sum; Lamentationes; Laudate Dominum; Laudate pueri; Laudate pueri; Magnificat; Magnificat; Qui habitat

Amaryllis Dieltiens, Marina Smolders, Inge Van de Kerckhove, Sarah Van Mol, soprano; Ann Baptist, Nele Minten, contralto; Hugo Naessens, alto; Gunter Claessens, Patrick Debrabandere, Lode Somers, tenor; Jos Boswinkel, Joachim Bracks, Bart Meynkens, bass; Rebecca Rees, cornett; Simen Van Mechelen, Cas Gevers, Uwe Haasse, sackbut; Mariette Holtrop, Blai Justo, violin; Piet Stryckers, viola da gamba; Frank Wakelkamp, cello; Hendrik-Jan Wolfert, violone; Bart Jacobs, harpsichord, organ; Ben Van Nespen, organ

Discs with polyphony by Portuguese composers of the 16th and 17th centuries are relatively rare, in comparison to recordings of Spanish music of the same period. The reason is that a large part of the repertoire has been destroyed during the earthquake which hit Lisbon in 1755. Ironically, a music-loving monarch is in fact responsible for this severe loss. João IV (1604-1656) collected as much music as he could lay his hand on. The first section of the catalogue of his library, which was published in 1649, comprises more than 500 pages. His library included hundreds of printed editions and manuscripts of music by Portuguese and Spanish composers. He also collected compositions from Flanders, England and Italy. Obviously he had a special liking for the music of João Lourenço Rebelo. By way of a clause in his will, he ordered Rebelo's oeuvre to be printed, and this resulted in the collection Psalmi tum vesperarum, tum completarum, item Magnificat, Lamentationes, et Miserere, which came from the press in 1657 and included two pieces by the king himself.

The second disc reviewed here is entirely devoted to Rebelo, but the first, recorded by The Marian Consort, comprises music by various composers from the mid-16th to the mid-17th century. If we realise that some of the composers were contemporaries of Rebelo, and then compare their oeuvre, we note strong stylistic differences, which attest to the coexistence of the stile antico and the stile nuovo during the first half of the 17th century.

The earliest composer in the programme of The Marian Consort is Aires Fernandes, about whom next to nothing is known; he has also no entry in New Grove. As almost all of his extant compositions have been preserved in the monastery of Santa Cruz in Coimbra, it is likely that he was associated with this monastery. Circumdederunt me is a text from the Office of the Dead. It fits the programme which - as the disc's title indicates - is about "music of lamentation".

Rory McCleery, in his liner-notes, discusses the frequency with which composers of the renaissance set such texts. He states that it "speaks both of the quotidian nature of death in their lives and the need to contemplate suffering, mortality and the possibility of salvation, but also of the artistic and expressive potential that such texts offered them." I don't question this statement, but let us not forget that the number of polyphonic settings from the Middle Ages until our time simply reflects the importance of such texts in the liturgy of the Christian Church. The liturgy attested to death as the inevitable outcome of human sinfulness, and to the need for salvation. In the Roman Catholic Church the concern for the eternal fate of the faithful is expressed in the Office of the Dead, including the Requiem Mass.

In the case of Portuguese music, McCleery sees a complementary factor. "Musical settings of disconsolate devotional and biblical passages also presented an effective and potentially covert vehicle for political commentary, and such is the case with works by many of the Portuguese composers living under the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs from 1580 to 1640. These musicians expressed through their compositions both the sadness of the people at being governed by a foreign power, and also the longing for the restoration of the Portuguese monarchy, a sentiment which found expression in the cult of 'Sebastianism', a belief that the young King Sebastian, who vanished in 1578 during an ill-advised military campaign in Morocco, might one day return to reclaim his throne." He may be right here, but it is hard to prove. And, like I wrote, as these texts are part of the liturgy, there is probably no need to look for specific reasons why composers turned to such texts.

That said, it makes for an interesting programme, which is more than just a random collection of pieces from the late Renaissance period. The latter term is deliberately chosen here, because although some composers died in the 1630s and 1640s, their music is stylistically rooted in the 16th century. The programme opens with an excerpt from the Lamentations for Maundy Thursday by Manuel Cardoso, who died in 1650. It could hardly be more different from the Lamentationes which end the Rebelo disc. There is little or no text expression here, and that is so much different in Rebelo's setting, where the composer frequently uses chromaticism and marked dissonances to express the text. Interestingly, João IV liked both composers. We already noted his appreciation of Rebelo, but he had also a portrait of Cardoso in his music library.

The main work in The Marian Consort's programme is the Missa Veni Domine by Duarte Lobo. The mass as such has nothing to do with the subject of this disc, but it was chosen because McCleery sees here a connection to Sebastianism. The mass is based on a motet by Palestrina, a Respond for Advent. The text "asks God to return without delay in order to 'ease the wrong done to your people, and call back to their land those who have been dispersed. Stir up your power, O Lord, and come that you might save us'." He then notes the way Lobo uses material from Palestrina's motet in his mass. "[Particularly] notable is his choice of melodic quotation for the Benedictus, where he tellingly employs Palestrina's music for the textual phrase 'and call back to their land those who have been dispersed' for his own setting of the words 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord'." Lobo was one of the main composers of his time, and from 1591 until at least 1639 he was mestre de capela at Lisbon Cathedral. He was also active as a teacher.

Of the same generation is Estêvão Lopes Morago, who was of Spanish birth. He studied with Felipe de Magalhães, and in 1599 he was appointed mestre de capela of the cathedral at Viseu. He occupied this post until his death. De profundis is the setting of one of the seven penitential psalms. Commissa mea is a versicle from the Office of the Dead. It is also included here in a setting of his teacher Magalhães, who from 1623 until 1641 acted as mestre of the royal chapel. Another pupil of his was Estêvão de Brito, who first worked as mestre de capela in Bajadoz Cathedral, but moved in 1613 to Málaga in Spain, where he was appointed maestro de capilla; here he remained until his death.

McCleery points out the expression and "emotional depth" of some of the pieces he recorded with his ensemble. Unfortunately these qualities don't fully come off in these performances. This is due to the rather straightforward way of singing, which seems a feature of many vocal ensembles from the Anglo-Saxon world. Music of the Iberian peninsula has a special flavour, which one also notes in the oeuvre of Victoria, even though his music has many similarities with that of Palestrina. In my experience this repertoire has a stronger emotional impact than Palestrina's music, but it seems that ensembles from the peninsula have a better feeling for this aspect than most other ensembles. It has probably to do with the colouring of the voices and the treatment of dynamics and tempo. I sometimes had the feeling that the tempo in some motets was a bit too fast. That said, I recommend this disc as it sheds light on repertoire which is little known. The singing of The Marian Consort is very good; although some singers don't avoid a slight vibrato altogether, it has hardly a negative effect on the ensemble. Moreover, Lobo's mass and Morago's motet Emendemus in melius are new to the catalogue.

I did already point out how different the music of Rebelo is. He was probably a pupil of Roberto Tornar at the Colégio dos Santos Reis Magos, who also taught music to the future King João IV. That was probably where the friendship between the composer and the future king began. In 1646 Rebelo was made a Commander of the Order of Christ and granted several other benefits. João wrote an essay under the title of Defensa de la musica moderna contra la errada opinion, which he dedicated to Rebelo. The latter's compositions included in the collection of 1657 probably date from between 1636 and 1653.

The pieces recorded by Currende, directed by Erik Van Nevel, show the influence of contemporary Italian music, which he may well have become acquainted with through the music João IV had in his library. The Italian influence manifests itself in the declamatory setting of the text, passages with text expression, the use of harmony for expressive reasons, and, last but not least, the use of the cori spezzati technique. The latter was practised in Venice and Rome, but it seems that Rebelo was particularly oriented towards Venice, as in his oeuvre the two choirs are of a different line-up (high vs low choir). As I already mentioned, the expressive qualities come especially to the fore in the Lamentationes. The motet Cum invocarem includes some striking examples of text expression, for instance the repeat of "bona" (good things) by the entire ensemble. And the phrase "in pace in idipsum dormiam et requiescam" (in peace shall I sleep and be at rest) is set to long notes, which is in strong contrast to the liveliness of the preceding passage.

Unfortunately I don't have access to the scores of the pieces included here. I would have liked to know the exact scoring of Rebelo's compositions. All the pieces are performed with participation of instruments. They sometimes play colla voce, but in other cases they seem to perform independent parts. In the article on Rebelo in New Grove, the author refers to his "instrumental writing", which suggests that Rebelo may have specifically required the use of instruments and have given them an obbligato role. Some motets are first performed instrumentally, and then with voices and instruments. The singing and playing is excellent, but the recording lacks in transparency. As a result the text is often not that well intelligible, which is a serious shortcoming in music, in which text and music are closely connected.

The documentation of this disc is rather poor. The scoring is not mentioned, which is especially regrettable as the programme includes several settings of the same text. Moreover, nowhere the date of the original recording is mentioned. The disc was first released in 2003 by the Belgian label Eufoda, which was notorious for its sloppiness in providing such data. Anyway, this is a recording of long ago, but although it is not entirely satisfying, the reisssue has to be welcomed, especially as Rebelo's music is not well represented on disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

The Marian Consort

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