Ex Cathedra Visit a Musical El Dorado

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brazilian Baroque. A Musical Eldorado, Ex Cathedra Choir and Baroque Orchestra, Jeffrey Skidmore (conductor), Town Hall, Birmingham, 1.3.2014 (JQ)

Manuel Cardoso (1566 – 1650) (from Manuscripto do Grupo de Mogi das Cruzes)
Et tractatu sancti Augustini
Francisco Gomes da Rocha (1745 – 1808) – Marcha in G
André da Silva Gomes (1754 – 1844) – Missa a oito vozes e instrumentos
José Joachim Emerico Lobo de Mesquita Tercio
Missa a oito vozes e instrumentos
Luís Álvares Pinto (c. 1719 – c.1789) Beata Virgo (Divertimento Harmônico no 1)
Lições de solfejo XXV
Oh! pulchra es (Divertimento Harmônico no 5)

Manuscripto do Grupo de Mogi das Cruzes (17th century) Matais de Incêndios Vv 1-4
José Maurício Nunes Garcia (1767 – 1830) – Missa Pastoril para a noite de Natal
Theodoro Cyro de Souza (1761 – ?) – Ascendit Deus
José Joachim Emerico Lobo de Mesquita (1746 – 1805) – Matinas do Sábado Santo
I Noturno Responsório II – Jerusalem, surge
Manuscripto do Grupo de Mogi das Cruzes (17th century) Matais de Incêndios Vv 5-8
António Marques Lésbio (1639 – 1709) – Celebremos el niño


Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra have won quite a reputation for performing baroque music from Latin America. Not only have they performed this neglected repertoire in concert but they’ve also made three very well received CDs which have exposed the music to the attention of a wider audience outside their Birmingham base (review ~ review ~ review). Actually, though I may be wrong, I think it’s a little while since they presented a new programme from the Americas: the last of those three CDs, Fire burning in snow, was released in 2008 and I reviewed the concert on which it was based in 2007. Of course, it takes time to compile such a programme because Jeffrey Skidmore researches the music exhaustively, including trips ‘in the field’, and this latest programme was the product of two visits – voyages of discovery might be a better description – that he has made to Brazil in recent years.

 The music that we heard in this concert differed in some important respects from the repertoire that Skidmore has presented previously. For one thing, hitherto his researches have been in countries such as Bolivia, Mexico and Peru which were conquered by the Spanish whereas Brazil was colonised by the Portuguese. Furthermore, much of the music in his earlier programmes was written in the late sixteenth- or early seventeenth centuries but, as he explained in his lively and absorbing programme notes, very little Brazilian music survives from earlier than the second half of the eighteenth century. For me the other big difference between this programme and the earlier ones was that, on the evidence of this selection at least, there was much less cultural cross-fertilisation in the music. In the earlier programmes we’d heard music that was recognisably Iberian in character but often spiced up with a dash or two of indigenous Latin American colour. There was much less evidence of that tonight. Indeed, the first half of the programme in particular appeared to demonstrate European-style music simply transported to and, dare one say, imposed on the local culture.

 A few days before this concert I’d heard Jeffrey Skidmore previewing this concert on BBC Radio 3 and if I remember correctly he suggested that the Brazilian baroque music was somewhat calmer in nature than some of the pieces he’d discovered in other Latin American countries. That was certainly the impression I gained from listening to Ex Cathedra on this occasion: the music had none of the occasional wildness heard in their previous programmes and though there was flamboyance it was of a different nature and more to do with baroque decoration.

 Each half of the programme was performed in an unbroken sequence, which worked very well. Both halves of the concert were built around a setting of the Mass and this provided an excellent and quite natural structure. I was mildly surprised to see that the Christmas Mass in part two of the programme was to be ‘interrupted’ by a Responsory for Holy Saturday but in the event that worked because José Joachim Emerico Lobo de Mesquita’s  music was, in the main, quite bright in tone.

 The names of virtually all of the composers were previously unknown to me and, as we’ve discovered in previous Ex Cathedra programmes, these composers, many of them emigrés who had trained in Europe, displayed a remarkable pioneering spirit in setting off to ply their musical trade in the far-flung lands of the Spanish or, in this case, the Portuguese empire: this could almost be called Music on the Frontier.  The only composer whose music I’ve previously heard was Manuel Cardoso. His Et tractatu sancti Augustini, which opened the proceedings, was a slow, solemn piece performed by the choir and a consort of voices with continuo accompaniment. The first half was built around André da Silva Gomes’ Missa a oito vozes e instrumentos. We heard the Kyrie and Gloria – we weren’t told if that is all there is of the Mass – with the three short pieces by José Joachim Emerico Lobo de Mesquita placed between the Kyrie and Gloria while the three offerings by Luís Álvares Pinto were heard part way through the Gloria.

 Gomes left his native Portugal for Brazil at the age of 22 and composed this Mass setting in 1785. It is scored for vocal soloists, double choir and an accompaniment of strings, two trumpets and continuo. The trumpets were deployed frequently and with no little brilliance to add a distinctly festive air, especially to movements in the Gloria. The string band was small – five violins, two violas and two celli. No doubt this was authentic since that’s the hallmark of Ex Cathedra performances but at times it seemed that the string band was too small given the size of the choir. The music was consistently attractive. Among passages that particularly caught my attention was the ‘Laudamus te’, a florid soprano solo which Elizabeth Drury despatched with bright-toned, agile singing. The ‘Qui tollis’ was a duet for two tenors – Thomas Hobbs and Ashely Turnell – in which the music was very fluid, featuring elaborately decorated vocal lines.  This, and other sections involving solo voices, was extremely well done. The full choir made an equally strong showing, not least in the stately ‘Gratias agimus’ and in the buoyant and joyful fugal ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ at the end. Gomes’ music was urbane and civilised and very European in character – often I was put in mind of Haydn. Above all it was sunny music; no dark clouds were allowed to cast a shadow. To be honest I didn’t feel that Gomes, for all his fluency and technical facility, plumbed any great depths in this music but it was consistently attractive.

 The music that we heard in the second half contained a bit more evidence of indigenous influences. We began with part of Matais de Incêndios, a rare example of a Brazilian vilancico in Portuguese – more of this was heard just before the end of the concert. Here, some local colour was added in the shape of a modest amount of percussion. The mainstay of the second half was Missa Pastoril para a noite de Natal by José Maurício Nunes Garcia. Garcia, who became a priest, was native Brazilian, born in Rio of mixed-race parentage. His Christmas Night Mass was composed in 1808 for choir and organ but we heard it in the revised version he made in 1811. In tonight’s performance the smaller pieces by de Souza and de Mesquita were placed between movements of the Mass. In Garcia’s 1811 revision he scored the Mass for an accompaniment of pairs of violas, celli, clarinets, bassoon, horns and trumpets plus timpani and organ. The result of this reworking is a piece that’s an absolute charmer. Interestingly, the brass instruments are used with great restraint; it’s the wind instruments that give the music a fine rustic feel. I mean absolutely no disrespect at all when I say that often one had the sense of the singers being accompanied by the town band, which is surely how it should sound, albeit this particular ‘town band’ was a very accomplished and refined ensemble. A particular delight was the contribution of principal clarinettist, Katherine Spencer. Garcia seems to have liked the sound of this instrument for he gave it a consistently prominent role in this Mass and Katherine Spencer seemed to relish the opportunity: her tone was wonderfully mellow and she delivered the often highly decorative line with great dexterity.

 Garcia’s music is thoroughly genial and relaxed; there was a genuinely pastoral feel about it and I liked the innocent charm with which he appeared to view Christmas Night.  The Kyrie had a Haydnesque feel to it; this was genuinely warm music. After the festive ‘Gloria’ there was a beguiling ‘Laudamus te’ for solo soprano which Katie Trethewey sang beautifully, supported by an ornate viola obbligato. She was one of no less than nine vocal soloists who made contributions during the Mass; all were excellent. Elizabeth Drury sang the florid, highly decorated ‘Qui sedes’ with a trio of male voices in support and a highlight of the performance was the duet between her and Katie Trethewey in the ‘Et incarnatus’. Here once more that delightful clarinet made its presence felt. The chorus work was no less impressive than it had been in the first half. Fittingly, for a Christmas Mass, the tone of the music was cheerful throughout. Garcia’s music may not have sounded serious but it was most certainly seriously composed; it was an accomplished and attractive work

 This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening even if the music didn’t quite have the feel of blazingly original discovery that one has had in previous Ex Cathedra programmes of this sort. This was more relaxed and, perhaps, less earthy music. No doubt part of the difference is also explained by the fact that much of this music was written a generation later. Nonetheless it was well worth hearing and it received splendid advocacy from Jeffrey Skidmore and his extremely skilled singers and instrumentalists. I doubt I shall ever have the chance to hear this music again – unless Ex Cathedra are able to record some of it – but I am very glad to have had the opportunity to do so. This consistently charming music warmed up a somewhat chilly evening in Birmingham.

John Quinn