Manuel Cardoso belongs to the group of composers most associated with the reign of Philip II, during what is regarded as the golden age of Portuguese Renaissance music; contemporaries that may be familiar names to readers include Filipe de Magalhães and Duarte Lobo. While none of these individuals are exactly over-represented in the catalogue there have been some fine discs, most notably a well-filled twofer, simply entitled ‘Requiem’ by the Tallis Scholars which collates previously issued recordings of large scale examples of the form by both Duarte Lobo and Cardoso. The Cardoso requiem on that issue is the more expansive work for six voices which is better known than the later, four-part example included on the new disc. The performers here are the Portuguese choir Cupertinos under their regular music director Luís Toscano. They are a new name on Hyperion’s roster of artists and I, for one look forward to future recordings, as they invest this repertoire with a tangible Iberian flavour which results in a sound that is simultaneously airy and sun-drenched. The sympathetic acoustic of Braga’s Basílica do Bom Jesus is evidently a help in this regard.
Toscano himself has provided a lucid and detailed introduction to Cardoso in the notes accompanying this issue. This composer was heavily influenced by Palestrina in common with his Iberian contemporaries; indeed, he has the reputation of being something of a conservative, although it is suspected that a quantity of more adventurous, even experimental music by Cardoso perished in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. His surviving output comprises five volumes of unaccompanied sacred choral music. Most of the items here belong to the third book, published in 1648. Toscano contends that it is this music which is most characteristic of Cardoso’s individual style, a proposition reinforced by words attributed to the composer from shortly before his death which are reproduced in the notes.
We start with a Lesson and two Responsories from Cardoso’s Lamentations for Maundy Thursday. Each verse of the six-part setting of the second lesson for Matins begins with a grandiose reflection on the Hebrew letters Vau and Zain, before the substance of the text is addressed in music which is drenched in the despair associated with the collapse of Jerusalem. The two Responsories which would surround the lesson in the actual Tenebrae service follow it here and, in sharp contrast, are austere and homophonic. The ten minutes of music here give a good idea of the strengths of this fine choir in this repertoire: a burnished intensity in the Lesson which contrasts markedly with the cool objectivity at the core of the Responsories.
Cardoso’s four-part Requiem is a real find. The various solo cantors from Cupertinos who commence each section seem to surf the airwaves of the Basílica's marvellous acoustic. The essence of this work seems to incorporate a softer focus, which yields expressive dividends from this particular choir. It is a rare delight to hear a group whose blend, if anything, favours the higher voices. In the flowing counterpoint that dominates this elegant work this trait, if anything, amplifies the impact of the silky, not too heavy lower voices when they do penetrate its glowing surfaces, as they do in the glorious, almost ornate Offertorium. Yet that warm, almost sunlit sound also suffuses the benign austerity of the brief, homophonic panels which conclude the Requiem. Time almost stands still in the Agnus Dei. If there are occasional lapses in ensemble or intonation they are tiny and have no palpable impact on one’s appreciation of Cardoso’s contrapuntal mastery. This four-part Requiem certainly provides consolatory balm for troubled souls during these anxious times.
The Magnificat in 4 parts is drawn from earlier in Cardoso’s career and is the only item on this disc from the first volume of his music, which Toscano tells us is exclusively devoted to settings of this canticle for four and five voices. In this Magnificat secundi toni the polyphony of the odd-numbered verses alternates with the plainchant of the even-numbered ones. This is atmospherically projected by the soprano Eva Braga Simões and provides a measured contrast with Cardoso’s gilded counterpoint as well as brief moments for spiritual reflection.
The programme is completed by the inclusion of eight brief motets, all but one of which are again drawn from the third volume. The enigmatic Domine tu mihi lavas pedes? (Lord, do you wash my feet?) at times hints at a more adventurous approach to polyphony on Cardoso’s part, while the exposed lines for higher voices nicely illustrate the aptness of this fine ‘local’ choir for this music. Amen dico vobis is simpler but positively glows until its abrupt, chordal conclusion. Some listeners may feel that this selection is a little homogeneous and lacks something in expressive variety, but there are joyful episodes, such as in Ipse est qui post me, which conveys a gentle vivacity, or the restrained ecstasy of the topographically laid out Omnis vallis. Arguably Cardoso’s best known motet is the oft-recorded Sitivit anima mea. This luminous piece for six voices concludes the disc and is the only item drawn from the composer’s second book. This beautiful account has perfect poise while the voices are superbly balanced. It rounds off a fine debut from this Portuguese group.