There’s more to Brazil than nuts and football, and there’s more to Brazilian music than samba and bossa nova! However, if you search for Brazilian Baroque on the internet, the results are largely to do with architecture in all its gilded opulence. An authority on Latin American music, Jeffrey Skidmore’s research has had him delving in person into apparently lost musical treasures. He’s recently returned from his second tour of Brazil, sun-kissed from their hottest summer in 40 years. His extensive programme notes provided a helpful insight into the unfamiliar riches of the evening’s material, kicking off with an observation that the term Baroque came from the Portuguese “barroco” meaning a misshaped pearl.

Jeffrey Skidmore © Janet Skidmore
Jeffrey Skidmore
© Janet Skidmore

Essentially a choral ensemble, Ex Cathedra was joined by a small, specially assembled early music orchestra, led by Rodolfo Richter, who comes from Curitiba, where Skidmore had contributed to a Festival of Music during his Brazilian trip – a nice collaborative symmetry. Tonight’s programme, covering music from the early 17th to the early 19th centuries, centred around two Masses by significant composers, interspersed with shorter works in the liturgical gaps. The packed audience was captivated from the outset by Manuel Cardoso’s Et tractatu sancti Augustini, one of Brazil’s earliest surviving polyphony pieces. With a slow tempo and hypnotic waves of sound, a sextet at the heart of the oyster-shaped stage formation gently transported us with a feeling of calm, leading then to full choir. Minimal orchestral accompaniment in this piece, courtesy of the exotic looking theorbo, was contrasted with the instrumental March in G by Francisco Gomes da Rocha, which conjured up brash, carnivalesque marching bands on the Brazilian streets. A handful of musicians stationed separately in the balcony, above the rest of the company, delivered this number, then marched off. (Their work for the night wasn’t over, though, as they could be spotted and heard amongst their ground floor colleagues after the interval.)

One of the joys of listening to a choir as skilled as Ex Cathedra is the appreciation of the use of solo and ensemble singers from within their ranks. Tonight’s pieces called for that in spades, and there was corresponding movement around the stage as necessary, always perfectly choreographed and never intrusive. The first half’s main work, Missa a oito vozes e instrumentos by André da Silva Gomes, radical for its day, was further complicated by being written for two choirs with eight-voice fugues creating a very rich sound. Nor was the orchestration shy and retiring, trumpets emphasizing the sensation of full-blown praise in the Gloria, the atmosphere of the whole being spiritually uplifting. Exuberance was tempered by moments of calm, with lovely crunching harmonies, unanimous rests and a slowed pace, as Et in terra pax delivered moments of great peace.

Ex Cathedra © Paul Arthur
Ex Cathedra
© Paul Arthur

The second half’s major work was the Missa Pastoril para a noite de Natal by José Maurício Nunes Garcia, a mixed race priest from Rio de Janeiro. With warm harmonies and a lilting pastoral melody that recurs frequently throughout the various movements, it conjured up Christmas in the sun. With no fewer than nine solo roles, in various permutations, it was complex and lively, even operatic at times. Originally composed for choir and organ, Father Maurício later orchestrated the work. We certainly had sparkle from Baroque clarinets and drama from the timpani, while the choir provided both clear diction and musical commitment.

Although the majority of the programme was sung in Latin, Portuguese also got an airing in José Joachim Emerico Lobo de Mesquita’s Tercio for soprano duet and strings including guitar, comprising Lord’s Prayer, Ave Maria and Gloria. In contrast to this sweet purity, there was a different kettle of piranhas altogether in the secular Matais de Incêndios (possibly attributed to António Marques Lésbio), with more than a little Latin passion in its Portuguese lyrics. Supported by guitar and percussion, notably a shaker that set up the characteristic (and challenging) rhythm, a quartet sang each verse, and despite repetition by full choir it was nevertheless over all too quickly – as was the entire concert.  Fabulous rhythms also rang out in the final piece, Lésbio’s Celebremos el niño, with spectacular tambourine backing, but it seemed a little strange to finish in the Spanish language after our exploration of Brazil.

After receiving the applause, the performers disbanded rather rapidly. An encore in Portuguese would have been the lime slice in the Caipirinha.

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