Internationalising Malta’s contribution to music

As we wave goodbye to the recently-concluded third edition of the Valletta International Baroque Festival, BETTINA BORG CARDONA reviews its tribute to Malta’s own baroque composer, Girolamo Abos, with three concerts taking place across the capital.

Die Kolner Akademie
Die Kolner Akademie
Passacaglia Ensemble
Passacaglia Ensemble
Valletta International Baroque Ensemble
Valletta International Baroque Ensemble
Kenneth Zammit Tabona. Photo by Ray Attard
Kenneth Zammit Tabona. Photo by Ray Attard

The Valletta International Baroque Festival, a two week extravaganza of Baroque music set against the backdrop of Malta’s Baroque capital city, was this year dedicated to placing Maltese music squarely within the international Baroque scene. The 2015 festival – the third since its inception in 2013 – celebrated the tercentenary of the birth of Maltese composer Girolamo Abos.

While performances of Maltese works were a rare treat during previous editions of the festival, this year’s programme featured no less than three events dedicated to the exposition of Abos’ relatively obscure oevre. Set amongst works by such eminent composers as Handel, Steffani and Thomas Arne, the festival served to locate Abos’ music within the wider Baroque scene, allowing the portrait to emerge of a versatile and talented composer who was also very much a man of his time.

Abos was born in Valletta in 1715, and through his connections with the Order, was sent to complete his musical education at one of the famed conservatories of Naples. Finding himself amidst the burgeoning musical activity of this city, Abos’ talent flourished, and the influence of the Neapolitan context upon him is evident. His compositions are mainly of vocal music, in a city which was exploring the full potential of the human voice in both sacred and secular contexts.

Abos wrote a number of operas, performed in various locations around Italy and beyond.  Abos was however especially recognised for his skills as a teacher, becoming one of only two non-Italians to work at the conservatories of Naples. He was also engaged as a Maestro di Cappella at some of the most important churches of the city, where he directed works of his own composition.

The three performances celebrating the works of Abos each offered an exploration into a different aspect of the multi-faceted musician. The first of these events, performed by the UK-based Passacaglia Ensemble at Ta’ Giezu church, presented a programme centred on the mid-eighteenth century musical scene in London, where a number of Abos’ operatic works were staged. This programme necessitated a substantial amount of research to be carried out by the ensemble, who were able to familiarise themselves with a period of Abos’ life and work about which little is so far known. The result was an entertaining and illuminating programme, informed by the group’s research into publications and manuscripts of Abos’ works.

The ensemble performed excerpts from two of Abos’ operas. The soprano Julia Gooding sang two arias, ‘Se d’un amor Tiranno credei’ and ‘Vendetta mi chiedi’ from the opera seria Artaserse, which premiered in Venice, and is based on one of Metastasio’s most famous librettos. Excerpts were also performed from Abos’ most celebrated and successful opera, Tito Manlio. This opera seria had premiered at the Teatro San Carlo in 1751, with the main role sung by one of the greatest castrati, ‘Caffarelli’, and was later revived in London at the King’s theatre in the Haymarket in 1756. The arias performed by Passacaglia from this opera were based on versions published in a volume entitled ‘The Favourite Songs in the Opera call’d Tito Manlio’, intended for domestic use.

The most fascinating portion of the programme was however the ensemble’s performance of excerpts from a pastiche opera put together by English composer Thomas Arne, which included arias by Abos. The pastiche ‘Love in a village’, an opera in three acts, was staged at Convent Garden in 1763, three years after Abos’ death. Passacaglia performed a highly entertaining comic setting of one of the dramatic arias from ‘Tito Manlio’, which begins “whence can you inherit, so slavish a spirit/Confin’d thus and chain’d to a log!”

Passacaglia presented the works by Abos in the context of the London musical scene at the time when they were staged. Thus, the performance included works by Handel and Thomas Arne himself. A highlight of the evening was the performance of German-born composer C.F. Abel’s compositions for solo viola da Gamba by Reiko Ichise, whose fiery rendition of these intensely moving works provided a counterpoint to some of the more buoyant pieces performed. 

The second event in the celebration of the Abos tercentenary was a performance at St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral by the Valletta International Baroque Ensemble (VIBE), inaugurated during the 2014 Baroque festival with the express purpose of giving life to Maltese works. VIBE this year presented a two-part programme culminating with the performance of Abos’ most successful work – his Stabat Mater – the popularity of which is evidenced by the great number of copies found in archives around Europe.

The Stabat Mater is a work of eighteen stanzas, followed by the Amen, set by Abos in five movements. Each movement begins with an instrumental passage, setting the ambience for what is to follow. What is most striking about the piece is perhaps its great dramatic quality, giving life to the text through such Baroque techniques as word painting. The work was originally scored for two sopranos and alto, two violins and continuo organ, the particular version performed for the festival realised by Maestro Joseph Vella. 

The importance given to the voice in Abos’ work was here fully evidenced in the demanding vocal lines sung by the perfectly matched voices of sopranos Mhairi Lawson and Gillian Zammit, and mezzo-soprano Clare Ghigo. Originally written for three castrati, the piece has an operatic quality typical of Baroque sacred music, with the vocal lines, although singing together, treated as individual solo arias in true celebration of the human voice.

Once again, the programme for this event set Abos’ works alongside those by international composers who also explored the full potentialities of the voice: Handel and the Italian Agostino Steffani. The evening however also featured a composition by a second Maltese composer, Michel’Ang Vella who, much like Abos, was sent to study in Naples. While no evidence has been found of Abos’ works ever having been performed in Malta, Vella was one of the few Maltese allowed to compose cantatas for the Order. VIBE here performed Vella’s Sonata a Tre op. 1 No. 6 for three violins accompanied by Viola da Gamba and Harp continuo.

The third and final event, also taking place at St Paul’s, was a tribute to Abos by internationally-renowned Die Kolner Akademie, directed by Michael Alexander Willens. The Akademie performed three more sacred works by Abos, namely a Magnificat, Benedictus Dominus and a mass for two choirs. This performance was once again the fruit of research carried out by Willens and Dr Frederick Aquilina, who edited the works, at the archives of Mdina. Excitingly, the evening’s performance by Die Kolner Akademie was recorded for release by cpo records (Classic Produktion Osnabrück) later this year, expected to be available by Christmas 2015.

Each of the works performed by the Akademie stood as a testament to the full-flowering of Abos’ sacred style. The first of the pieces on the programme, the Magnificat, was originally scored for a choir of four voices, two horns, strings and continuo organ. The Benedictus, a composition of special interest in that few Maltese settings of this canticle exist, was scored for five voices and an orchestra including two oboes, a trumpet or horn and solo bassoon. It is speculated that this piece might have been composed for the Cathedral of Naples, and it is markedly grandiose when compared to the sparse forces employed for such works as the Stabat Mater.

Finally, the most dramatic moment of all was reserved for the Messa a due cori, also believed to have been composed for the Neapolitan Cathedral. Scored for two choirs of five voices each and two orchestras, the mass features alternating passages of choral and solo numbers. Once again, it was the voice that was given a starring role, with some truly spectacular moments of vocal interplay and virtuosic display, as in the Qui Sedes ad dexterma Patris and the closing movement of the work, lent dramatic support by the use of trumpets.

As professed by the artistic director of the festival, Kenneth Zammit Tabona, the Baroque Festival has set the ball rolling to fulfil one of its aims of “internationalising Malta’s contribution to music”.

The festival not only provides a platform for the performance of recovered Maltese works, but also gives incentive to musicologists and researchers to continue their work of uncovering further musical treasures. As Zammit Tabona explains, an important aspect of the work of the festival is to facilitate academic interest in the archives, and to stimulate further research and performance of Maltese music. Plans for future editions of the festival include the performance of works found in the archives, such as those by Bonaventura Rubino and Jommelli.

This effort certainly seems to have been appreciated. The popularity of the festival is growing exponentially every year, although unfortunately some venues may have to be reconsidered in future, with most events packed to bursting. Nevertheless, it is heartening to see such interest being generated in the exploration of Malta’s Baroque musical heritage.