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Before today’s service the Dean introduced this week’s visiting choir with the word “brilliant”.

And they were. They were Capella Duriensis from Bristol’s twin city of Oporto. As the name implies, they specialise in a cappella singing, which now means any singing not accompanied by instrumental music. “Cappella” of course refers to “chapel” or “church”, so in choosing to explore both the English and Portuguese choral traditions this group is returning to the roots of a cappella. Duriensis refers to their city’s location on the River Douro, Latin Durius. 

Although today they were accompanied by the organ, their a cappella training meant that each individual voice sounded extremely strong, and as a group they performed in total harmony. For me it had the happy result that the Latin words of the Mass setting – the Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus, and Agnus Dei, were much easier to follow than they can often be with a larger choir who do not sound so “together”, the individual words much more clearly picked out. Of course, in this style of singing the words have to be clearly recognisable. By contrast, I’m often quite surprised at singers, both classical and pop, who simply shout the main component of a syllable or who, in their efforts to hit the note, don’t voice the full quality of the phoneme (sound-unit) they’re singing.

Barco Rabelo with barrels of port wine

The traditional barco rabelo of the River Douro symbolises the links between Portugal and England, a typical Portuguese barge laden with the Douro region’s most famous product which bears an English name – port wine. ‘Port’ is a corruption of Oporto, or Porto, and the wine owes its characteristics to the process of fortification. In the age of sail fortified wines were better able to withstand the rigours of the voyage from southern Europe through the Bay of Biscay and the Chops of the Channel to Bristol and other English ports. (Photo: Thomas Istvan Seibel)

Quite recently I watched Bryn Terfel singing on a televised Prom and as a lipreader was very struck by how his ns shaded over into ms several times. I’m not familiar enough with his singing to know if it was a personal idiosyncrasy or the demands of that piece. However, it was audible as well as visible, so I don’t think I was hearing things, so to speak. I’m not pretending to be the sort of music buff who sits with the tips of their fingers together and frowns at the merest hint of a fluffed note (borrowing my father’s description of a pretentious music critic) because I can only hear with a single untrained ear. I wouldn’t be able to spot a bum note if it clobbered me round the face with some sort of lethal medieval weapon. To me, though, it seems that if you aren’t making yourself understood while singing, even if you’re making beautiful noises, you’re half missing the point. Perhaps I’m wrong and all the millions of people who listen to music and know their onions are right and it doesn’t matter, but if music is a form of communication, then the point of communication is to be understood.

Today it was exceptionally comprehensible. And it struck me that greater musicality paradoxically led to greater accessibility. I can’t tell you how odd it felt to be actively enjoying being exposed to unusual settings by Portuguese composers rather than the more usual suspects common in Anglican cathedral-style services; to form my own opinion of the choir’s abilities; and chat to other people afterwards and discover that they had felt the same. If you’d told me two years ago that I would be soaking this stuff up I would have snorted in disbelief.