Sunday 10 November 2013

BREMF: Profane Deliriums - Passionate love songs from Portugal and Brazil

L'Avventura London
L'Avventura London is a period instrument group, directed by Zak Ozmo, dedicated to exploring the music of the 16th to 18th centuries. For their concert at the Brighton Early Music Festival on Saturday 9 November their explorations reached 18th century Portugal and the modinhas. At St George's Church, Kemp Town, laid out cabaret style with tables and with an audience drinking wine and eating picnics, the ensemble seduced us with an attractive selection of 18th century Portuguese salon songs, modinhas. L'Avventura was led by Zak Ozmo on baroque guitar, with two Portuguese sopranos Joana Seara and Sandra Medeiros, plus Marta Goncalves on flute, Joanna Lawrence on violin, Taro Takeuchi on six-course guitar and English guitar (a metal stringed instrument, a member of the cittern family) and Natasha Kraemer on cello and percussion (often using the body of her cello as a percussion instrument).

Part of the interest in the modinha is that it is one of the ancestors of the Fado. The style of song involves a very seductive vocal line, with much sighing and the subject is, of course, love. The form seems to have come from Brazil (a Portuguese colony) in the mid 18th century but no-one is quite certain of its origins. Many of the faster numbers that L'Avventura performed had a lovely rhythmic lilt to them which came across as Brazilian. Some are in fact based on the syncopated rhythms of a Brazilian dance-song genre known as the lundum. Many musicians in Portugal were of mixed-race, children of white fathers and slave mothers, so that it is unsurprising to find popular styles merging.

Essentially this is a style of salon music, and in some of the songs the outlines of politer 18th century song from other parts of Europe could be heard. Though some are anonymous, many have known composer; these are composed songs, not folk-songs. In the 18th century Portuguese salon the main accompaniment would be forte-piano or English guitar, though undoubtedly other instruments would be used. L'Avventure used a variety of scorings with the whole ensemble joining for many of the numbers, but others slimmed down to just a couple of guitars.

Their programme was nicely varied, from the lively Brazilian rhythms of the anonymous duet Ganinha, minha Ganinha, through the freer solo by Antonio da Silva Leite (1759 - 1833) Tempo que breve passate (sung by Joana Seara) to the more elegant slow dance of the solo by Marcos Antonio Portugal (1762 - 1830) Ja, ja me vai, Marilla(sung by Sandra Medeiros). Both sopranos have operatic backgrounds and their dramatic training told in the way they projected the songs in such a delightfully seductive manner and a hint of pathos.

We know about many of the songs thanks to a publication called the Jornal de Modinhas which was published in Lisbon every two weeks from 1792 to 1796. Leading composers wrote songs in the style, Portugal referred to above was a successful composer of Italian opera and Jose Mauricio (1752 - 1815), whose slow but elegant duet Sobre as asas da ternua was included in the programme, composed church music. And Antonio da Silva Leite (also mentioned above) was based in Oporto where he was the chapel master at the Cathedral and he wrote an important manual on the English guitar.
William Beckford encountered the modinha in 18th century Portugal and described it in his diary as 'an original sort of music different from any I ever heard, the most seducing, the most voluptuous imaginable, the best calculated to throw saints off their guard and to inspire profane deliriums.'

Like Beckford, we were seduced and delighted by these profane deliriums. The audience reaction was very appreciative and the group responded with an encore, persuading many to sing along. I'm probably not alone in wishing the programme had been longer and I look forward to encountering this delightful form again, thankfully the group has recorded a programme which is available on CD.

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