Renaissance Singers: Portuguese penitential music

I heard a voice from heaven
Portuguese penitential music
The Renaissance Singers
St George’s, Bloomsbury, 10 March 2018

The Renaissance Singers are one of the most impressive of London’s amateur choirs, always coming up with well-planned and well-presented and exceedingly well-sung concerts of Renaissance music. The latest of these was a programme of early 17th-century Lenten music from Portugal. Featuring composers born between 1550 and 1610, the concert was based around extracts from Duarte   (Requiem) with motets by Pedro de Cristo, Filipe de Magalhāes, Aired Fernandez, and Manuel Cardoso and concluding with João Lourenço Rebelo’s extraordinary setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Intelligently written programme notes by choir member Tony Damer explored the background of the intense and expressive music composed during a period when Portugal was breaking away from the Hapsburg Spanish Empire to become an independent state under King João IV, an important patron of the arts and music. 

Although firmly rooted in the Renaissance polyphony of the likes of Palestrina, these composers developed a distinctive style of their own, notably in the harmonic twists and turns that resulted from their use of complex chromatic musical lines and convoluted polyphony. It is a matter of conjecture as to whether they were composing within a notion of proto-Baroque harmony or if their extraordinary harmonies were a by-product of their approach to polyphony.

The heartwrenching opening cry of Pedro de Cristo’s De profundis clamavi, sung with considerable power from a side gallery, set the mood for the evening. Conductor and Musical Director David Allinson then introduced the music, a repertoire clearly close to his heart, describing the music as a “warm hug” although it can appear as though nothing much is happening. The first part alternated the Kyrie, Gradual, and Offertory from Lobo’s Missa pro defunctis with intimate motets by Cristo, including his Hei mihi Domine and Lachrimans sitivit anima mea, the latter’s text of exile and suffering probably referencing the political situation in Portugal at the time.

Duarte Lobo’s funerary motet Audivi vocem de caelo opened the second half, a piece that became well-known in England during the 18th century, and remains so. As with Aires Fernandez’s following Circumdederunt me dolores mortis, key words (for example dicentem, dolores mortis, and laquei mortis) were enveloped in distinctive harmonic colourings.

The concluding Lamentations by Rebelo is a magnificent double-choir work, the various incipits flowing into the following verses. A curious composer, he was a childhood companion of the future King João IV. Although he never achieved any specific court positions, he was raised to aristocratic rank) and assisted by the new King in his compositions and publications, and had access to the Royal music library, later destroyed in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. The Lamentations were written after the King’s death, and just four years before Rebelo’s own death. Its imaginative use of chromatic vocal lines and changing vocal textures ranged from the full double choir (one high, one lower) to more intimate textures. Writing at a time when the early Baroque had already settled in central European music, this transitional piece is perhaps an example (as the programme note reminded us) of the fact that the very word Baroque stems from the Portuguese barrocco: “a twisted and oddly distorted pearl”.

As usual, the 24 singers of The Renaissance Singers were on superb form, their singing clear and precise and in excellent consort. David Allinson is an inspiring conductor and director, and one of the few users of a tactus beat when conducting Renaissance music – the slow pulse which underlies Renaissance (and later) musical time. He inspired the choir in some superbly delicate final chords, and controlled the varying volumes exceptionally well.

It is worth noting that the church of St George’s, Bloomsbury, the Renaissance Singer’s usual home, had cordoned off a side aisle and the back rooms of the church as a night shelter for London’s increasing number of homeless people.

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