So what about Portugal? Performances of music of the Renaissance seem to focus on Italian and French schools of composition, sometimes turning the focus to Northern Europe, but rarely to Spain and rarer still to Portugal or the rest of Europe. Performing at Boston’s First Lutheran Church on Friday evening, December 17, the early music ensemble Exsultemus brought to light in a set of vivid and historically informed performances works by seventeenth-century Portuguese composers Estêvão de Brito, Gaspar Fernandes, Manuel Cardoso, Estêvão Lopes Morago, and the eighteenth-century Baroque composer João Rodrigues Esteves.
Members of the ensemble took time to ease into the considerable work ahead of them on Friday evening’s performance. Two false starts into Estêvão de Brito’s Ibant magi quam viderant, a treacherously exposed work with treacherous harmonic shifts, seemed to affect other a cappella works early in the evening that were just as exposed and complex in character; Gaspar Fernandes’s Christus natus est nobis and Brito’s Puer qui natus est were marked with difficulties in balance and seemed less secure compared to other works throughout the evening.
The ensemble, however, quickly recovered and appeared more at home at the first substantial work of the evening, Missa Puer qui natus est, by one of the chief architects of Portuguese polyphony, Manuel Cardoso. Strong bass lines established the focal point for intricate polyphony in the upper voices. Basses Paul Guttry and Brian Church were particularly notable, providing a rich contrast to the labyrinthine lines from countertenor Martin Near and tenors Owen McIntosh and Michael Barrett. This musical focus was crucial for the nuanced ensemble work: beyond the basics of a coherent and unified sound, members of the ensemble found intimate niches within the complex polyphony. Thus, even during potentially monotonous periods, a dogged sense of attention to the shaping of individual parts created an enthralling performance. Of particular note was the concluding Agnus Dei, repeated three times, increasingly softer; Exsultemus flourished in its attention to fragile, etiolated lines interwoven into a rich polyphony.
The second half of Friday evening’s program began with two massive organ works by the monk Luis Coutinho, Obra de 1º Tom and Meio registro de 2º T om de dois tiples e dois contrabaixos. Performed on the Fowkes organ in the sanctuary of First Lutheran Church, Bálint Karosi’s technically unsurpassed playing lost many of the finer details due to the cavernous sanctuary. Regardless, Karosi offered the audience a performance that heard, appreciated, and explicated the unique use of rhythms and interactions prevalent within the four-hundred-year-old music.
The choir continued with Estêvão Lopes Morago settings of Christmas responsories. Although composed for the church, Morago’s pieces left the gravitas of the earlier ecclesiastical works of the evening for the vivid colors and textures of madrigal music. The members of Exsultemus were in superb form, with an energy that reflected the supple lines and vivid text painting of the works.
The evening concluded with music by the eighteenth-century composer João Rodrigues Esteves. Writing roughly a century after the other composers of the evening, the progression of thinking in Portuguese music was evident. In addition to his setting of the Magnificat, Exsultemus performed a short motet, a setting of the Regina coeli laetare text. Both works are imbued with Baroque sensibilities: Regina coeli laetare consists primarily of staid homophonic part-writing mixed with richly ornamented polyphony, a style exacerbated in the Magnificat setting, a standard 14-part division of the text in which each voice was showcased as both soloist and ensemble member.
Esteves’s work was a culmination of the lessons presented throughout the evening, a natural extension and development of the tonal world developed by the seventeenth-century composers before him. Certainly writing with a unique voice, the thumbprint of Fernandes’s and de Brito’s early works in the Portuguese school were clear in Esteves’s music, particularly throughout the homophonic portions of the Regina coeli laetare. The considerable talent in the ensemble was showcased in rich melismatic solo passages in the Magnificat, the final work of the evening, particularly in the case of Shannon Canavin, in a setting of the Et Exsultavit text that negotiated devious flourishes with a clean tone and graceful line. Masterful ensemble work pervaded the performance; rich, chromatic lines and stunning dissonances in the Baroque composer’s writing were thoughtful text painting without overpowering the scope of the work.