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"Évora - Portuguese Baroque Villancicos"

A Corte Musical
Dir: Rogério Gonçalves

rec: March 24 - 26, 2013, Gelterkinden (CH), Reformierte Kirche
Pan Classics - PC 10304 (© 2014) (57'34")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

anon: A la villa voy, villancico humano; Eu e vós, meu doce emprego, vilançete for the Feast of the Ascension; Pavana [1]; Sentada ao pé de hum rochedo, vilançete for th Feastof the Ascension; Suspenda toda a armonia, vilançete for the Feast of Saint Lucia; Rogério GONÇALVES: Lundú da corte; Ponteio barroco; Antonio Marques LÉSBIO (1639-1709): Dime como he de portarme, villancico for the Blessed Sacrament; Ya las sombras de la noche, tono a 4 humano; Frey Miguel DA NATIVIDADE (c1630-c1690): O que assombro, vilançete for the Feast of Saint Lucia; Manuel Botelho DE OLIVEIRA (1636-1711): Ameaças o morrer; Pedro Vaz REGO (1673-1736): Amante Deus, vilançete for the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus; Frey Manuel DOS SANTOS (1668-1737): Mas no ay que admirar, villancico for the Blessed Sacrament

Source: [1] Antonio Martín y Coll, ed., Huerto ameno de varias flores de música, n.d.

Mercedes Hernández, Agniezska Kowalczyk, soprano; Javier Robledano, alto; Daniel Issa, tenor; Stéphanie Erös, Vitaliy Shestakov, violin; Rogério Gonçalves, bassoon, percussion; Stephan Schürch, violone; Marie Bournisien, harp; Maria Ferré, Josías Rodríguez Gándara, theorbo, guitar

How much Portuguese music do you know? Probably not that much: compositions by Portuguese composers of the renaissance and baroque eras are often performed as "music from the Iberian peninsula", mixing music from Spain and Portugal. In a way that does makes sense: the music culture of both countries had much in common, Spanish composers worked in Portugal and vice versa, and between 1580 and 1640 Portugal was part of the Spanish empire under Habsburg rule.

One parallel between Spain and Portugal is an important musical form, the villancico as it is called in Spanish; in Portuguese it is known as villançete. It has its origins in the renaissance; the first known specimens date from the late 15th century. During the 16th century composers started to write villancicos in polyphonic style. Whereas villancicos were originally secular in character, towards the end of the 16th century an increasing number of devotional villancicos were written, especially for Christmastide. This development reflects the growing influence of Counter Reformation.

Most of the villancicos which are performed today are of a devotional nature, and that is also the case with the pieces selected for this disc. There are two exceptions: A la villa voy is a villancico humano, Ya las sombras de la noche is called a tono humano. Tono is a general term for a vocal piece for solo voice(s); humano refers to the secular nature of a piece. The other items are for various feast-days, such as the circumcision of Jesus and the feast of the Ascension. Many villancicos were written for the Blessed Sacrament; two of such pieces are included here.

Most of the pieces on this disc are taken from a manuscript which is called the Cancioneiro de Évora, after the town in whose Public Library it is preserved. Évora was the leading cultural and musical centre of Portugal in the 17th century. Some of the pieces are in Portuguese, others in Spanish, reflecting again the closeness of Spanish and Portuguese musical traditions. The composers of several pieces have remained anonymous, but others have been written by distinguished composers of the 17th century, although today they are hardly known - if at all - to music audiences at large. The best-known is probably Antonio Marques Lésbio who for most of his life was closely connected to the royal court. He composed a large number of villancicos of which only a fraction has been preserved. Ya las sombras de la noche is one of only two tonos humanos from his pen which have come down to us, and this piece is remarkable for its use of harmony in the interest of text expression.

Manuel Botelho de Oliveira documents the dissemination of Portuguese - and more generally Iberian - musical culture to the New World. He was born and died in Salvador in Brasil, then a Portuguese colony. Interestingly Ameaças o morrer has been included in a collection published in Lisbon in 1705. The melody is a contrafactum of a ciaccona by the Italian composer Francesco Cavalli. I would have liked to know more about the identity of this piece and how Cavalli fits in the picture, but the liner-notes hardly give any specific information about the individual items. There is even little about the composers. I could find some information about Oliveira thanks to the Portuguese version of Wikipedia, but nothing about Frei Miguel da Natividade. Both composers are not included in New Grove either, unlike Lésbio and Frei Manuel dos Santos. The latter was probably a pupil of the former, and also composed music for the royal chapel, including villancicos. Mas no ay que admirar, a villancico for the Blessed Sacrament, is one of his only two extant compositions. Pedro Vaz Rego is another composer of whose oeuvre very little has been preserved - probably, as in many cases, due to the earthquake of 1755 which destroyed the complete royal library. Rego's inclusion is especially relevant as he was mestre de capela at Évora.

This survey of what this disc has to offer should suffice to convince you that this is a most interesting production. Not that many Portuguese villancicos have been preserved, and this is probably one of the very few recordings of such repertoire. I can't remember having heard any of it before. The performances are outstanding and the best possible case for this repertoire. The singing and playing is of the highest order. The music is compelling and certainly of the same level as the better-known villancicos by Spanish composers. I hope that Rogério Gonçalves and his colleagues will go on exploring what has been left of the Portuguese musical heritage of the 17th century.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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