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Romaria - Choral Music from Brazil
Kate Symonds-Joy (mezzo)
Liam Crangle (organ); Marco Antonio da Silva Ramos (narrator - Romaria)
Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge/Geoffrey Webber
rec. 2014, Chapel of Girton College, Cambridge England
Original texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34147 [70:48]

This is a valuable and enjoyable survey of contemporary Brazilian music for - mainly - unaccompanied choir. As someone who has an interest in both Latin American music in general and the British choral tradition I was interested to hear how a choir steeped in the latter would handle the vibrant colour and passion of the former. Certainly the music benefits from the care and precision and all-round quality of the singing. The downside is that in some of the music that very same 'care' seems to be contrary to the emotional abandon that seems implicit.

The strength of the singing is apparent in the very first work; Henrique de Curitiba's 1973 Metaphors. de Curitiba's — he was actually a Polish immigrant named Zbigniew Henrique Morozowicz — novel idea was to juxtapose a choral work which 'treats' a fragment of a Victoria Mass against a soundtrack of the Brazilian Rainforest. The rainforest element is very prominent and pervasive and the first time I listened to the work I wondered if overly so. But the more I listened the more I thought it was both very effective and indeed rather moving. The music is the newcomer to the soundscape of the forest and it is the music which has to adapt to it. Indeed, aside from the more obvious passages derived from the Victoria much of the work seems to be trying to engage with the forest sounds in an imitative onomatopoeic way. The unpublished work was found among composer's works which he left to São Paulo University but without the accompanying soundtrack. For this recording this has had to be recreated by Denise Hiromi Aoki following instructions/indications in the score. One has no way of knowing how close to original Aoki's reconstruction is but in its own right its an impressive piece of work. She achieves real depth and perspective in the jungle sounds - right down to an annoying mosquito that - particularly if listened to on headphones - suddenly appears behind the listener's left ear so tangibly that the temptation to twitch away from the impending bite is all but irresistible. On the musical front de Curitiba sets the choir significant challenges - the lead soprano line is consistently high-lying and requires the singer to be comfortable up to high C sharps. At eight minutes this is the single longest track on the CD and is an impressive and evocative opening to the recital.

As music I enjoyed all of the works presented here but the selections from Ernst Mahle's Folksong Suite crystallise my sense that not all of this repertoire ideally suits the performance style of the choir. These are pleasantly straightforward arrangements of folksongs - lacking say the harmonic tang of the best Grainger treatments which transform folksong into something quite different - for good or ill. Mahle retains the swaying Latin American rhythms which the choir sing with anglicised gusto - great fun to sing I'm sure and well worth adding to the repertoire but I find these performances just too polite. Indeed, this is just the kind of interpretation that gives grist to the mill of those who feel that 'Art' music sanitises 'Folk' music when such arrangements are made.

The same lack of religious fervour undermines the impact of some of the religious works that are included too. Do not get me wrong - this is technically very fine choral singing indeed. The analogy I would make is if you enjoy The Kings Singers singing arrangements of Beatles songs you might well enjoy this too. For me I would trade a substantial amount of ensemble polish for heart-felt passion.

The following work - Romaria - gives the disc its title. Romaria refers to religious pilgrimage and juxtaposes spoken sections of a poem with a more standard choral setting which the choir sing beautifully. Fonseca's Jubiabá is another work to suffer from the squareness of the choir's basic style. Conductor Geoffrey Webber contributes a good liner-note in which he points up the cultural melting-pot that is Latin America in general and Brazil in particular. This is evidenced by music reflecting a whole series of influences from Portuguese/European to indigenous peoples and Africa brought over by the enslaved people. Jubiabá is the most clearly 'African' influenced work right down to Fonseca's ingenious creation of vocalised percussion effects which drive the work to a ever more ecstatic delirious climax. I can imagine in a more idiomatic performance than this, this work being an absolute show-stopper.

Another point Webber makes is how little of this repertoire is published - and when it is - as in the case of the Villa-Lobos works, the editions are riddled with errors. As Brazil's most famous composer perhaps it is reasonable that Villa-Lobos is the only composer to be represented by two - albeit quite short - works. The first, Cor dulce cor amabile reflects the composer's life-long Bachian obsession and is easily the best known work given here. The long flowing mellifluous lines suit the choir to perfection and this receives a beautifully fluent and enjoyable performance. This is also true of the work that immediately preceded the Cor Dolce. Ernani Aguiar's Antiquae Preces Christianae seem to tap into a choral tradition that is more explicitly European than Latin-American and echo the settings of Vitoria and even earlier composers. But this is more than simple pastiche but rather beautifully meditative music written in a modern idiom but in clear homage of an earlier age.

The other Villa-Lobos work closes the disc and is a setting of the Magnificat in its choir and organ version which brings the disc to a rousing conclusion even if it is one of the less imaginative works offered here. Indeed, a firm impression gained from the disc is that although Villa-Lobos might be the most famed composer, all of the others have produced music of considerable craft, skill and imagination that match their more famous compatriot. The longest work is Ayiton Escobar's Missa breve sobre ritmos populares brasileiros. This really is a splendid - and vocally demanding - work. The 'folk' elements are far more fully absorbed into the idiom - Escobar creates vocal 'instruments' too - I like the strumming guitar effect in the Gloria. Certainly the music allows the choir to show off their considerable technical skill - I feel slightly churlish to wonder if just a fraction more abandoned religious fervour could have created an even more overwhelming effect - surely HOSANNA! should be hurled out in a paean of praise. What delicious swaying harmonies accompany the Benedictus though - again a delight to sing I imagine.

As with much of the repertoire on this disc the Mass is receiving its premiere recording and whatever my passing concerns about the detail of stylistic execution I sincerely hope that it will bring this extraordinarily rich and rewarding repertoire to a wider listening - and singing - public. Delphian's presentation and engineering is very fine and with a running time just over seventy minutes generous too. As mentioned, Geoffrey Webber contributes a succinct but informative liner, all text are provided in the original language and English-only translation. The recording in the chapel of Girton College Cambridge is good with the choir slightly set back in the supportive acoustic and soloists from within the choir subtly spotlit.

Another disc to reinforce my opinion that the music of Latin America is as astoundingly rich and rewarding as it is under-appreciated.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: John Quinn

Disk contents

Henrique de CURITIBA (1934–2008)
Metaphors (1973) [8:14]
arr. Ernst MAHLE (b. 1929)
Carimbó (Suite of Folksongs from the State of Pará, – excerpts) (1982) [6:28]
Osvaldo LACERDA (1927–2011)
Romaria (1967) [4:31]
Carlos A. PINTO FONSECA (1933–2006)
Jubiabá (1963) [3:31]
Ernani AGUIAR (b. 1950)
Antiquae Preces Christianae (1976) [5:23]
Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887–1959)
Cor dulce, cor amabile (1952) [3:19]
J. A. de ALMEIDA PRADO (1943–2010)
Oráculo (1974) [3:40]
Claudio SANTORO (1919–1989)
Ave-Maria (1978) [3:26]
arr. M. A. da SILVA RAMOS (b. 1950)
Moreninha se eu te pedisse (Folksong from South-East Brazil) [3:30]
Nibaldo ARANEDA (b. 1968)
Ismália (2009) [3:57]
Aylton ESCOBAR (b. 1943)
Missa breve sobre ritmos populares brasileiros (1964) [17:42]
Magnificat-Alleluia (1958) [7:00]


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