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Profane Deliriums: eighteenth-century Portuguese Love Songs

Location: Foundling Museum, London
Event Date: November 2012
Review Date: 30th November 2012
Reviewed By: Tullia Giersberg, King's College London
Review Citation: Tullia Giersberg, review of Profane Deliriums: eighteenth-century Portuguese Love Songs
Date Accessed: 2nd August 2015

‘The most seducing, the most voluptuous imaginable, the best calculated to throw saints off their guard and to inspire profane deliriums’, wrote the English author, art collector, and traveller William Beckford (1760-1844) about modinhas, a peculiarly alluring genre of love songs hugely popular in Portugal in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. Beckford knew all there was to know about ‘profane deliriums’ – his own scandalised polite society to such a degree that eventually his exasperated family saw no other remedy but to pack him off to the West Indies. But Beckford never made it to Jamaica. Instead, in 1787, he disembarked at Lisbon, where he was to sojourn, on and off, until 1799. ‘Bewitching’ he found the experience of listening to modinhas, and ‘enervating’ at the same time, like ‘swallowing milk and […] swallowing poison’ – enticing words from a connoisseur whose sexcapades were notorious.

Nothing quite as alarming went on at the wildly successful launch concert celebrating period ensemble L’Avventura London’s recent recording of some of the most beautiful of these love songs for Hyperion at the Foundling Museum. The ensemble specialises in venturing off the beaten track, and they do so, here as elsewhere, with bravura. Founded in 2009 by its director, early music scholar and plucked instrument specialist Žak Ozmo, L’Avventura London has rapidly risen to prominence through its musical brilliance, its dedication to historical performance practice, and two highly successful prior recordings with Opella Nova, Handel in the Playhouse and An Italian Rant! On this occasion, Žak Ozmo at the baroque guitar was joined by Marta Gonçalves (flute), Joanna Lawrence (violin), Natasha Kraemer (cello), Taro Takeuchi (six-course guitar and English guitar), David Gordon (harpsichord), and entrancing Portuguese sopranos Sandra Medeiros and Joana Seara. Their atmospheric recreation of modinha proved an experience no less addictive or exhilarating than that described by Beckford more than two hundred years ago.

A distant ancestor of the more commonly known fado genre of dance and song, modinha seems to have crossed the Atlantic from Brazil, a Portuguese colony in the eighteenth century and the meeting place of European, indigenous, and African musical cultures. Just precisely how the genre found its way to Lisbon remains the subject of scholarly debate, but there it met with earlier Italian styles of composition made popular in Portugal by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) and other classical composers including Carlos de Seixas (1704-42) and Pedro António Avondano (1714-82). The result of this clash of Baroque cultures is a playful, sensual mix of the familiar and the exotic, of popular and classical sounds, of melodies, rhythms, and keys often in violent contrast with one another yet straddling with ease the historical and stylistic gap that divides Mozart from Blues, and Blues from Reggae. At one end of the songs’ emotive spectrum is the languid yearning of songs like Marcos António Portugal’s (1762-1830) ‘Já, já me vai Marilia’ and António da Silva Leite’s (1759-1833) ‘Tempo que breve passaste’, both of which lament the ravages of love and time, at the other the jubilant, life-affirming Afro-Brazilian syncopations of ‘Ganinha, minha Ganinha’ and ‘Onde vas linda Negrinha’. As presented by L’Avventura London, they cover the entire range of human emotions and passions.

Portuguese, the language of modinha and of this evening’s programme, possesses its very own entirely captivating rhythm, and in Sandra Medeiros and Joana Seara – both Portuguese by nationality – it had two superb exponents, whose well-matched sopranos seemed to outshine one another in bringing to life the existential drama of modinha. Joana Seara has a powerful, passionate, very warm voice, which convinced particularly in António da Silva Leite’s ‘Tempo que breve passaste’. The song consists entirely of alternating outbursts of fiery passion (think the Queen of the Night’s ‘Der Hölle Rache’ in The Magic Flute) and prolonged passages of quiet longing which demand of the singer flexibility, technical virtuosity, and the ability to negotiate ever changing tempi and rhythms. Seara’s meticulous control of breath and purity of tone allowed her to do just that, resulting in a performance both operatic in its grandeur and carefully layered at the same time. Sandra Medeiros has a vocal range no less impressive than that of her colleague, which she displayed to maximum effect in the anonymous ‘Foi por mim, foi pela sorte’, a slow harrowing meditation on the destructive effects of jealousy, and in Portugal’s ‘Já, já me vai, Marília’. In this song, the voice enters into a delicate dialogue first with the flute, seemingly lifted straight out of a Mozart opera, and eventually with the entire ensemble as different instruments seem to comment upon and add to the narrative woven by the words. Medeiros’s slightly more metallic timbre gave a haunting otherworldliness to this plaintive dirge entirely in keeping with the world-weary detachment projected by the song’s narrator.

Together, Medeiros and Seara created intricate and at times highly amusing musical drama in duets like ‘Ganinha, minha Ganinha’ and ‘Você trata amore em brinco’. Percussion elements – kudos to Natalie Kraemer for the innovative uses she put her cello to – and samba rhythms lend the former a vivacious, sparkling quality reinforced by the tongue-in-cheek use of grand gestures in the vocal lines, which seem both to flaunt and to mock the pathos that is integral to modinha. Here, as in the latter song, the rapport between the singers, and between the singers and the ensemble, proved infectious. Both Medeiros and Seara ornamented their performances with a few well-placed and deliberately coquettish voice effects, highlighting the essential humour and playfulness of the more exuberant of these songs. In ‘Você trata amore em brinco’, for example, the afflicted narrator, suffering sorely under the tyranny of love, positively wallows in self-pity (the repeated line runs ‘Ai, amor, amor, amor’), a comic, almost caricaturesque, scene which was acted out with gusto by the singers – to the utter delight of the audience.

The instrumentalists, wonderfully nimble in their support of the singers throughout the evening, had a chance to showcase their impressive skills on several occasions, for example in a charming little number entitled ‘Toccata do Sr. Francisco Gerardo’ by da Silva Leite for two English guitars, a small metal-stringed instrument belonging to the cittern family which was popular in England in the eighteenth century. Taro Takeuchi (English guitar) and Žak Ozmo (baroque guitar) were delightful to listen to and mesmerising to watch. David Gordon, meanwhile, electrified the audience with his virtuoso rendering of the ‘Toccata No. 8’ by Carlos de Seixas, a violently rhythmic show-stopper of a piece originally written for solo harpsichord but here cleverly and entirely appropriately augmented by Natasha Kraemer on the shaker. The instrumental version of ‘É delícia ter amor’, finally, from its impassioned introductory harpsichord flourish through its surging, endlessly striving treble lines to the abrupt end mid-phrase, which seems to question the certainty of its title, illustrated perfectly what modinha is all about: a seemingly boundless appetite for and love of life, expressed through a musical conflagration of exotic rhythms, sounds, and voices. Playfulness and improvisation are at the heart of this most vivacious of genres, and L’Avventura London conveyed this in a superlative way. ‘When I think of [modinhas]’, wrote the hot-blooded Beckford, ‘[I] cannot endure the idea of quitting Portugal’. L’Avventura’s performance had a similarly addictive effect. Even after a well-received encore the audience was loath to let the performers go. I did not exactly find my ‘soul panting to fly out of [me]’, as Beckford did, but like him, I suspect I will return to the luscious world of eighteenth-century modinhas for a long time to come – thanks entirely to L’Avventura’s adventurous, ground-breaking music making. L’Avventura London’s beguiling foray into the world of modinha, 18th-century Portuguese Love Songs (Hyperion CDA67904), is out now.

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