I was delighted to receive this disc for review because in March 2014 I attended a concert in Birmingham at which all this music, and a bit more, was performed and I reported on it for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard.
Ex Cathedra have previously released a series of recordings of music from Latin America. However, it’s been a while since their last such disc, which was released in 2008. Furthermore, the music on these previous discs came from the Spanish colonies and was mainly from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. On this latest disc Jeffrey Skidmore shares with us some of the fruits of his researches into the music of the Portuguese colony of Brazil and most of the music was composed later than the pieces on the three earlier discs.
Collectors who have invested in any of the previous three discs will notice a few differences between the music on this present disc and the material to which Jeffrey Skidmore introduced us before. One noticeable difference is that the music from Brazil lacks some of the earthy quality that made much of the music from the Spanish colonies so fascinatingly vibrant. Maybe that’s because the Brazilian music was written later. Another factor, I think, is that in these pieces we hear almost no indigenous instruments. A guitar and some fairly discreet percussion colour the accompaniment to the Matais de Incêndios but otherwise the instrumentation is very definitely European. So, too, is the tone of the music. Much of this repertoire could have been composed in Europe and transplanted to the colony, though that’s not the case; it was all composed in Brazil by Portuguese emigrés or their descendants. With much of the music from the Spanish colonies one had a sense of fusion, even if the European style was uppermost. Here there’s not too much evidence of fusion; one rather has the sense of the colonists grafting on-perhaps even imposing—their own musical style.
However, none of the foregoing should be taken to imply that the music on this album is uninteresting; such is most definitely not the case. As Jeffrey Skidmore tells us in his absorbing booklet essay, the pieces that are presented here are some of the fruits of detailed researches that he has carried out during visits to Brazil over a three year period. He’s benefited also from the assistance of a number of expert Brazilian musicians and academics.
The core of this programme is José Maurício Nunes Garcia’s Missa Pastoril para a noite de Natal (‘Pastoral Mass for Christmas Night’). Garcia composed the Mass in 1808 for choir and organ but three years later he rewrote it and scored the accompaniment for a small orchestra. I see that in my review of the 2014 concert I said “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.” The reference to a town band was in no sense derogatory and I derived the same impression from listening to this recording. In particular, Garcia gave a key role to the clarinets and their contributions are a constant delight. There’s often a sense that this music could have been written by Haydn and I think that the Austrian composer would have delighted in the woodwind writing and in the sheer cheerfulness of the music. It’s an absolutely charming piece and I enjoyed the performance greatly. Garcia makes quite a bit of use of a relaxed, rather graceful melody that first appears in the Kyrie. On that basis it’s a sensible decision to break the setting up on CD into segments interspersed with other music and, in any case, the whole Mass would not have been heard continuously in a liturgical context.
The other Mass setting is by André da Silva Gomes. As was the case at the concert we hear his setting of the Kyrie and Gloria from Missa a oito vozes e instrumentos. There wouldn’t have been room to include any more music on the disc in any event but I’m not sure if this is all that survives of the Gomes setting. Gomes opens with a short and joyfully extrovert Kyrie—this sounds nothing like a plea for mercy. The second Kyrie takes the form of an energetic fugue for all eight voice parts. The trumpets are very prominent indeed at the start of the Gloria, adding a real sense of festivity. There are several extended solo passages in this Gloria and almost without exception the solos are highly decorated, suggesting that Gomes must have had some very accomplished singers at his disposal. There’s another eight-part fugue at the conclusion of the Gloria; this is music of uninhibited celebration.
The remaining pieces on the programme are much more modest in scale but all are worth hearing; everything that Jeffrey Skidmore has selected for this programme is delightful.
As we have come to expect over the years the standard of performance achieved by Ex Cathedra is very high indeed. Twelve singers are used (4/2/3/3) and the band, who play on instruments of the period, number 16. There are many vocal solos, a good number of which sound pretty demanding, and each one is delivered with great style and conviction. In fact it’s a pronounced feature of the disc that the performers sound thoroughly engaged in the music. There’s a genuine air of discovery.
The recorded sound is excellent and the documentation is comprehensive.
The concert which I attended in Birmingham a few months before these recording sessions was given the title ‘Brazilian Baroque. A Musical Eldorado’. That was a highly appropriate description and there’s no doubt that Jeffrey Skidmore has brought back with him from Brazil a goodly amount of previously hidden treasure. He deserves our thanks not just for discovering the music but, much more importantly, for bringing it so vividly to life through these excellent performances. He says in his notes that “there is much still to discover and explore”. Let’s hope there’s also scope for further performances and recordings of this fascinating repertoire by Ex Cathedra.