musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Marcos PORTUGAL (1762 - 1830): Matinas do Natal

Ensemble Turicum
Dir: Luiz Alves da Silva, Mathias Weibel

rec: March 2009, Zürich, Erlöserkirche
Paraty - 209.108 (2 CDs) (1.32'55")

Responsório 1: Hodie nobis coelorum Rex; Responsório 2: Hodie nobis de caelo pax vera; Responsório 3: Quem vidistis pastores; Responsório 4: O magnum mysterium; Responsório 5: Beata Dei Genetrix; Responsório 6: Sancta et immaculata virginitas; Responsório 7: Beata viscera Mariae virginis; Responsório 8: Verbum caro factum est

Vera Ehrensperger, Martina Fausch, Susana Gaspar, Rebecca Ockenden, soprano; Elizabeth McQueen, contralto; Javier Robledano, Jan Thomer, alto; Frédéric Gindraux, Reto Hofstetter, Luiz Alves da Silva, tenor; Marcus Niedermeyr, baritone; Grzegorz Rozycki, Denis Kovalenko, ; Pierre-André Taillard, Tomoko Ferraino, clarinet; Rogério Gonçalves, Miho Fukui, bassoon; Patrik Gasser, Mark Gebhart, horn; Ulrich Eichenberger, trombone; Mathias Weibel, Mario Huter, Laura Chmelevsky, Salome Janner, viola; Anderson Fiorelli, Marlise Goidanich, celllo; Matthias B. Frey, double bass; Bruno Procopio, organ; Mario Marchisella, timpani

If you have never heard of a composer with the name of Marcos António de Fonseca Portugal you are excused. In Wikipedia I found an article which says that only two of his about 50 operas have been performed during the 20th century. So there is little chance you have ever heard any of his music. He was also a prolific composer of religious music, and I haven't heard anything of that either. Naturally this raises one's curiosity if an ensemble presents a recording of his Matins for Christmas which date from 1811.

Let us first focus on Portugal's biography. He was born in Lisbon in 1762 as Marcos da Ascenção, and only later adopted the surname Fonseca Portugal after Captain José Correia da Fonseca Portugal, who had been godfather at his parents' wedding. He studied with two of Portugal's main composers of his time, João de Sousa Carvalho and José Joaquim dos Santos. His first position was that of organist at the Patriarchal Holy Church in Lisbon. He also started to compose liturgical music, a genre which would remain important to him for most of his career. It was during a stay in Italy from 1792 to 1800 that he started to compose operas. No less than 22 operas were performed during that period which enjoyed great success as show the large number of staged productions. After 1793 his operas were performed in many countries in Europe as well as in Brazil, not only in Italian but also in other languages, like German and Russian.

After his return to Portugal he was appointed mestre de capela of the royal chapel and maestro of the Teatro de S Carlos. He wrote 13 operas for the theatre in Lisbon. In 1807 the French troops invaded Lisbon, and the year after the royal family left for Brazil where they settled in Rio de Janeiro. In 1811 Marcos Portugal followed the royal family, and after his arrival he was immediately restored to his previous positions in the royal chapel and a new-founded theatre. He was also expected to teach the royal children. It is here that the Matins for Christmas were written. When the royal family returned to Portugal in 1821 Marcos Portugal decided to stay in Rio de Janeiro at the service of the future emperor of Brazil, D. Pedro I. He adopted the Brazilian nationality and in 1825 he composed an Anthem for the Independence of Brazil.

The Matins for Christmas were sung during the night before Christmas. The consist of three Nocturns, each comprising three responsories. The ninth is usually substituted by a setting of the Te Deum. Here the Matins are performed as they appear in Portugal's manuscript, and as only the first eight responsories are sung, Portugal apparently didn't compose the Te Deum.

The instrumental scoring is quite remarkable, in particular for the lack of violins. In a way their role is taken over by the clarinets which play an important part in these Matins. Solo passages are also given to other instruments, like the cellos, the bassoons and the organ.

The Matins consist of a sequence of solo and tutti passages. Here the vocal ensemble has 13 singers, who - with the exception of one - also sing the soli. These are sometimes short, but some responsories include virtuosic arias, for instance Responsório 6. In particular these are reminiscent of the operas of Rossini, and that is one of the features of these Matins. In general the style is very operatic and marks the Italian influence on Portugal's music. In the first responsories there are some ensembles which make one think of Mozart's operas.

The reference to Rossini is very appropriate here, even though these Matins were written before Rossini had developed as a composer and Portugal probably had never heard of him. But in these Matins we hear how his sacred music was under the spell of the Italian opera, just as in Italian sacred music of the first half of the 19th century. They reflect also the personal preferences of Portugal's employer, D. João, who didn't like austerity, but was "more prone to gayer music", as António Jorge Marques writes in his liner notes. And that it what Portugal offered him.

The performance is quite good, in particular the first four Matins. When the music becomes more virtuosic and operatic, a wobble sometimes creeps in, especially in the more virtuosic arias. The tutti are sung well, but the sound is somewhat bigger than I expected, considering the number of singers. The instrumentalists give excellent performances, which is vital in regard to the importance of the instrumental parts.

It is very hard to tell how exactly Portugal has translated text into music, as the lyrics are not included in the booklet. That is an unforgiveable omission, in particular in a recording of unknown repertoire. Even so, the character of these Matins doesn't suggest any kind of text expression as we find in the 18th century. That makes it hard for me to really appreciate them. I don't think I will ever listen to them again. Those who love Rossini's operas will probably appreciate them more, even though one may need to adjust to the fact that this is indeed sacred music. But if one doesn't have any problems with Rossini's Messe Solennelle, one will not have problems with these Matins either.

Whether one likes this music or not, it is important that this repertoire has been recorded as it illustrates how from 1800 onwards sacred music came increasingly under the influence of Italian opera. And it sheds light on a composer who is largely forgotten, and whose operas may be worth being rediscovered.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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