Wednesday 19 February 2020

Ductus est Jesus: music from the Portuguese Golden Age from Gramophone Award winning Portuguese ensemble Cupertinos

Cupertinos, musical director Luis Toscano
Cupertinos, musical director Luis Toscano
Ductus est Jesus,: Manuel Mendes, Pedro de Cristo, Manuel Cardoso, Fernando de Almeida, Estêvão de Brito, Estêvão Lopes Morago, Bartolomeu Trosylho, Filipe de Magalhães; Cupertinos; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 February 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
The Gramophone Award-winning Portuguese ensemble makes its UK debut with a programme of Portuguese polyphony from the Golden Age

The Portuguese vocal ensemble, Cupertinos, won a 2019 Gramophone Award (in the Early Music category) for its disc of Cardoso's Requiem and Lamentations on Hyperion. Directed by Luis Toscano, Cupertinos made its UK debut on Tuesday 18 February 2020 at Cadogan Hall as part of the Choral at Cadogan series. The programme, Ductus est Jesus, concentrated on music for Lent and centred on the Missa de Quadragesima by Manuel Mendes, along with Lamentations by Pedro de Cristo, Manuel Cardoso, and Fernando de Almeida, plus motets by Estêvão de Brito, Estêvão Lopes Morago, Bartolomeu Trosylho and Filipe de Magalhães, all Portuguese composers from the late 16th century and early 17th, the so-called 'Golden Age'.

The composers in the programme were all associated with the various religious centres in Portugal, and much of the music survives in manuscript. Many of the works performed, including the mass and the Lamentations by Pedro de Cristo and Fernando de Almeida, were transcribed and edited by Luis Toscano (music director of Cupertinos and Professor Jose Abreu (from the University of Coimbra). And one of the ensemble's aims is to present this unexplored legacy of Portuguese polyphony.

The fascinating thing about this period of Portuguese polyphony is that it took place against the background of the loss of sovereignty. In 1580, King Henry I of Portugal died, he was known as Henry the chaste and was a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church who only came to the throne because his nephew King Sebastian I died in battle in 1578. As Sebastian had been the only heir to his grandfather, these deaths left a succession crisis which led to 80 years of Spanish rule, initially under King Philip II of Spain. It was against this backdrop, with many of the composers working for Philip, the Portuguese polyphony flowered. Inspired by music such as that of Palestrina (1525-1594) and perhaps ignoring contemporary Baroque developments in music in Italy, the composers of the Portuguese Golden Age seemed to create a distinctive Portuguese style which can be seen as some sort of reaction against the Spanish domination of the country.

The movements from Mendes' Missa de Quadragesima (Kyrie, Credo, Sanctus & Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Benedicamus Domino) were spread out throughout the programme, surrounded by motets and the various settings of Lamentations. Cupertinos was a 10 person group (, with female altos) with Luis Toscano, who sings tenor, providing a discreet pulse from his position at the end of the arc of singers. The result had the sort of flexibility and sense of individuals contributing to communal purpose that comes from unconducted groups (you could see the way individual singers were communicating throughout the performance), yet with a sense of overall structure and architecture which comes from a conducted ensemble.

As performers, the singers demonstrated a quiet confidence and understated sense of technique, but this was combined with a clear love of the music they were singing, and a strongly individual vocal sound. Much of the music was sober, even penitential, and there was no scope for riotous enjoyment but it was clear that the singers were fully involved in the music. This was a fully engaged and engaging account of often unfamiliar music, one which rather than dazzling was profoundly satisfying. It was a style which was willing to sacrifice surface perfection in the pursuit of expressiveness, and all the singers gave us a sense that this music really meant something to them. This was allied to fine diction, so that even without the printed words (there had been a problem with the printed programmes), we could ascertain the text and its meaning.

In terms of vocal style, the group owes a lot to what I think of as the Mediterranean sound of choral singing, individual voices were clearly present and the overall tone was very vibrant, but allied to a sophisticated understanding of the music and a sense of overall ensemble. Lines were often strong and very sculptural, which set off the rich polyphony admirably.

It was fascinating to hear the three sets of Lamentations side by side, each set a different section of the Biblical text and each was, I assume, a fragment of a larger whole. We started with that of Pedro de Cristo, slowly unfolding with a great sense of architecture, quite sober with a concentrated gravity to the performance. Manuel Cardoso's six-part Lamentations were full of rich textures, quite vigorous at times and really gorgeous. Fernando de Almeida's eight-part Lamentations came at the end of the programme (followed just by the 'Benedicamus Domino' from Mendes' mass); a surprising piece, full of lovely textures and vivid effects which brought out the drama of the words.

Manuel Mendes' Missa de Quadragesime also had some strong lines, with moments like the final 'Kyrie' and passages from the 'Credo' being surprisingly full-blooded and, at times, positively gutsy, yet alternating with more intimate moments with plainchant from a solo voice. The 'Sanctus & Benedictus' were sung with a real sense of engagement, whilst the 'Agnus Dei' was surprisingly fast. The final movement of the mass, 'Benedicamus Domino', proved to be quite small but perfectly lovely.

Surrounding these were a series of motets, mostly unfamiliar such as the robust polyphony of Estêvão Lopez Morago's surprisingly vigorous and upbeat De Profundis or the gently unfolding lines enlivened by lively detail of Bartolomeu Trosylho's Circumdederunt me. Pedro de Cristo's eight-part Parce mihi Domine used antiphonal effects between different sized groups to striking effect. Manuel Cardoso's six-part Sitivt anima mea proved to be sober yet rich textured.

The programme was quite compact (30 minutes each half) and played without applause between the items, which meant that it flowed beautifully, thus added to the sense of concentration and intensity in the performance. At the end, the applause was rightly enthusiastic, and we were treated to an encore.

Pedro de Cristo: Lamentationes Jheremie prophetæ 1:1-5
Manuel Mendes: Missa de Quadragesima – Kyrie
Estêvão de Brito: Assumpsit Jesus
Manuel Cardoso: Lamentationes 1:6–7
Manuel Mendes: Missa de Quadragesima – Credo
Estêvão Lopes Morago: De profundis
Bartolomeu Trosylho: Circumdederunt me
Pedro de Cristo: Parce mihi Domine
Manuel Mendes: Missa de Quadragesima – Sanctus & Benedictus
Filipe de Magalhães: Commissa mea
Manuel Cardoso: Sitivit anima mea
Manuel Mendes: Missa de Quadragesima – Agnus Dei
Fernando de Almeida: Lamentationes 2:8-11
Manuel Mendes: Missa de Quadragesima – Benedicamus Domino
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