Revelatory exploration of the Golden Age of Portuguese polyphony by Cupertinos

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ductus est Jesus: Cupertinos / Luís Toscano (director). Cadogan Hall, London, 18.2.2020. (CC)

Cupertinos (c) Fundação Cupertino Miranda

Manuel MendesMissa de Quadragesima

Pedro de CristoLamentationes 1:1-5; Parce mihi Domine
Estēvão de BritoAssumpsit Jesus
Manuel CardosoLamentationes 1:6; Sitivit omnia mea
Estēvão Lopes MoragoDe Profundis
Bartolomeo TrosylhoCircumdiderunt me
Filipe de MagalhãesCommissa mea
Fernando de AlmeidaLamentationes 2:8-11

The Portuguese vocal ensemble Cupertinos’s first disc for Hyperion, of Lamentations, Magnificats and Motets by Manuel Cardoso (1556-1650) is one of the most purely beautiful choral discs to come my way for some time; it was reviewed for MusicWeb International in March 2019 (review click here). Founded as recently as 2009, Cupertinos acts as an ambassador for Portuguese polyphony.

Entitled ‘Ductus est Jesus’ (Jesus was led), Cupertino’s Cadogan Hall recital included two pieces by Cardoso from that disc (the first and last tracks, the Lamentations for Maundy Thursday and one of Cardoso’s best known works, the six-part motet Sitivit anima mea). The skeleton around which the programme was built was Manuel Mendes’s Missa de Quadragesima.

In the guise of the featured composers’ music, this was a veritable tour around Portugal in the form of Pedro de Cristo (from the monastery of Santa Cruz in Coimbra), Manuel Mendes of Évora, Filipe de Magalhães (who succeeded Mendes there and studied with him) and Estēvão Lopes Morago of Viseu; although de Brito was associated with Malaga, he was born in Serpa and studied with Magalhães at Évora. But it was the construction of the programme that fascinated. The Mendes Mass was heard in either individual panels, or pairs of movements, separated by the music of other composers. Pedro de Christo’s music either began or was right towards the start of each half of the concert, while three composers setting the Lamentationes ran through the evening like a spinal cord: de Cristo, Cordoso and de Almeida. The intersecting nature of this was transfixing, a shifting kaleidoscope of music of supreme depth. One might even have argued for the absence of an interval.

The Missa de Quadragesima of Manuel Mendes is a clear masterpiece. The delivery by Cupertinos was superb, nicely balanced, not too bass-rich. One did hanker for a more resonant church acoustic; Cadogan Hall’s drier, somewhat clinical sound robbed the music of some of its special quality. That said, the music itself is golden, the Kyrie opening with a beautiful layering of voices. Harmonically, Mendes includes some dissonances (some might call them scrunches) that are not only adventurous and even audacious, but truly affecting. How interesting then that the strict nature of the writing for the Credo – one might almost say severe – offers huge contrast, the music only softening at ‘Filium’. The slowly shifting Sanctus has a hypnotic quality to it, while the Agnus Dei is of gorgeous harmonic warmth. mirrored here in the timbre of the vocal delivery. When it came to the short, final ‘Benedicamus Domino’, the sopranos turned to face the audience directly, at once brightening the sound and opening out the experience.

Pedro de Cristo (c1550-1618) wrote more than 200 sacred works. His Lamentationes contain moments of the utmost delicacy (at ‘lachrymae’, perhaps unsurprisingly). The performance was supremely managed, the exactitude of the rhythmic unison at ‘Et factus sunt’ an absolute joy. It was in this piece that the beautiful voice of tenor Almeno Gonçalves first distinguished itself; his solo declamations of chant were to be another thread of magic throughout the evening.  But it was the remarkable, glowing harmonies of de Cristo’s eight-part Parce mihi Domine, heard in the concert’s second half, that offered a true highlight, the music shot through with light as if lit from within, the sopranos clarion clear but never, ever shrill.

The richly scored Assumpsit Jesus by de Brito offered sonic balm, the counterpoint remarkably consoling and the perfect partner to the Cardoso Lamentationes, this latter with its glowing arrivals on ‘Jerusalem’ and beautifully balanced chords. The poignant dissonances of Morago’s De Profundis concluded the first part – at less than two minutes a mere snippet, but what profundity those seconds contain.

Very much associated with the Portuguese Royal family, the composer Bartolomeu Trosylho contributed music of the utmost dignity, effectively a slow processional, Circumdiderunt me. While Filipe de Magalhães’s Commissa mea in its dark magnificence was reminiscent of Victoria, it was Fernando de Almeida’s Lamentationes that was compositionally utterly remarkable, its sudden impetuosity, repeated severally, really taking the listener aback.

There was one encore, short but beautiful: Audivi vocem by Duarte Lobo. The Golden Age of Portuguese polyphony, the 16th and 17th centuries, was heard here in all its magnificence. What slight untidinesses there were along the way seemed to add to the humanity of the experience. A revelatory evening.

Colin Clarke

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