We do not often get an opportunity to hear a classical music performance played on Portuguese guitar (Citara Lusitanica) in Goa, or on viola da gamba. So having them perform together at the Menezes Braganza hall on 1 October was a rare treat indeed.

The recital began with Hugo Vasco Reis (Portuguese guitar) playing one of his own compositions Suite no. 1 (in four movements Prelude, Romance, Invention and Fantasy) for his instrument. As he said in his interview to me, he intended in this work to “give a harmonic idea with constant use of dissonance and atonality”, and that the “melodic speech is frequently disrupted.” This was readily apparent as the work unfolded, and one movement seemed to ‘bleed’ into the next. And even though there was no obvious tonal centre, one could hear harmonic progressions, however unconventional and in more instances than not, ‘unresolved’. We had the Baroque reference and structure of a Suite, and with the opening movement named a Prelude, but the remaining movements were not typically ‘dance-like’ in either name or character. The calling-card or ‘signature’ chord followed by a harmonic which interspersed the work was an especially nice touch. The soundworld created by Reis took some getting used to, and the composition certainly deserves repeated listening to appreciate it better.

Le Badinage is taken from Suite d’un goût Estranger, from the 4th book of Pièces de Viole by Marin Marais (1656-1728) and became famous after it was played by Jordi Savall in ‘Tous les Matins du Monde’ a biopic of Marais with Gérard Depardieu playing the composer. It is played as viola da gamba solo, or with basso continuo. Filipa Meneses gave us a pensive solo account of the haunting main ‘rondeau’ theme and the inventive digressions leading from and returning to it.

We then heard Reis and Meneses perform four Canções by virtuoso Portuguese guitar player and composer Carlos Paredes (1925-2004): ‘Canção’; ‘António Marinheiro’; ‘Canção’ from the film ‘Verdes Anos’; and ‘In memory of a murdered peasant’. His compositions are suffused with the melancholy one expects to find in Fado, and the last work ‘In memory of a murdered peasant’ paints a particularly bleak landscape, but still somehow tinged with hope. Paredes spent many years imprisoned by the Salazar regime for being a member of the Communist party, yet shrugged off any heroic status for his suffering, saying “Many suffered worse than I.” The viola da gamba assumed a supporting role in the Paredes, except briefly in the ‘Canção Verdes Anos’, where it sang the melody with obvious relish.

Portuguese composer for harpsichord José António Carlos Seixas (1704-1742) is relatively obscure, and undeservedly so, compared to his contemporaries JS Bach, Scarlatti and Handel. So accomplished was he that when Scarlatti was in Portugal and the royal court arranged for Seixas to take lessons from him, Scarlatti replied that it was Seixas who should give him lessons instead! Sadly much of Seixas’ work was destroyed in the devastating 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Nevertheless 105 of more than 700 of his sonatas for harpsichord still survive, and we heard three of them (numbers 14, 80 and 37 respectively, all in minor keys) transcribed by Reis for Portuguese guitar playing the right-hand part and viola da gamba the left. It was quite de rigueur for works from this period written for one instrument to be transcribed and played upon other instruments. And the Portuguese guitar does have a sonorous similarity to the harpsichord, as does the ‘regular’ guitar, so a lot of harpsichord works are transcribed for the latter. But the combination with viola da gamba creates an aural illusion of ‘asynchrony’ due to the contrast in the very nature of the instruments. A note bowed on viola da gamba rises to a swell at its midpoint, whereas plucked on Portuguese guitar it begins loudest and then fades. This is disconcerting at first, until the ear adjusts to this.

The rest of the programme focussed on contemporary Portuguese composers: Jorge Tuna (1937): Balada das Alpenduradas; Afonso Correia Leite: Canção de Alcipe; and Pedro Caldeira Cabral (1950): Balada da Oliveira. The descriptions again are interesting: Songs, Ballads, befitting an instrument that would have sat well in the hands of itinerant troubadours of yore, but with a contemporary twist. The Balada da Oliveira was particularly appealing in its beguiling sincerity, with a deceptively simply tune underscored by harmonies that are unmistakably, heartbreakingly even, Portuguese. Cabral is not only an exceptional exponent of and composer for the Portuguese guitar, with a highly respected scholarly book, the first of its kind on the instrument; but he is also an outstanding performer in a vast instrument repertoire that spans the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and contemporary periods of Iberian music.

A reprise of the Canção by Paredes served as the encore offering to end the concert.


(An edited version of this article was published in the Navhind Times Goa India on 8 October 2013)