Going down the Baroque rabbit hole

Returning to the Valletta International Baroque Festival for a fourth time, BETTINA BORG CARDONA enjoys its mix of the familiar and the obscure

VIBE (the Valletta International Baroque Ensemble)
VIBE (the Valletta International Baroque Ensemble)

by Bettina Borg Cardona

Discovering early music is like falling down a rabbit hole into an alternate universe of strange instruments, unfamiliar composers and unusual performance practices. At the Valletta International Baroque Festival, Baroque music is presented on its own terms, yet audiences of all ages and levels of musical knowledge are invited to engage with it.

Thus, the fourth edition of the Baroque Festival featured a varied programme: from the familiar, as in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Bach’s Goldberg Variations, to the downright obscure, as in the presentation of a work discovered in local archives, and only recently performed for the first time.

While the performances might sometimes be challenging, the audience rarely feels that it’s been left out in the cold, as attested by the numerous informative ‘asides’ during concerts, as well  the copious programme notes provided with every event. One of the significant threads running through the festival is the concern with historically informed performance.

Baroque musicians are often not only performers, but also researchers and experts in their ever-deepening field, and perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of the festival is the manner in which historical context is provided for the music. And of course, there’s also the architectural context of some wonderful Baroque buildings in Valletta.

In keeping with this aspect of the festival was the opening concert: a performance of J.S. Bach’s ‘Musical Offering’ by Le Concert Des Nations, directed by world-renowned viol player and composer Jordi Savall. Savall is strongly associated with the early music revival of the 1970s both in his native Spain and abroad.

In Savall, years of research and study inform the interpretation of scores such as this, which often contain limited practical indications. Savall’s chosen order for the performance opened with the famous ‘Thema Regium’ – the theme provided by Friedrich II of Prussia to J.S. Bach, upon which the latter was asked to produce a six-part fugue.  The theme wound through the complexities of Bach senior’s beautifully constructed work, though unfortunately on this occasion, little effort was made to draw audiences into the performance by the orchestra.

From the Prussian court to that of Naples, La Ritirata ensemble presented a wonderfully impassioned picture of the music heard at the Aragonese court at Naples, highlighting its rich musical culture during this period.

The evening included virtuosic performances by solo members of the ensemble on their respective instruments. The group’s director, Josetxu Obregon, performed a number of works by early cellists (Vitali, Gabrielli and Jacchini) which served to illustrate the elevation of the status of the cello at this time from a continuo to a solo instrument.

The solo performances by members of La Ritirata also included improvisations on early modern works, as in Enrike Solinis’ interpretations on Baroque guitar – evidently indebted to the rich tradition of Spanish guitar. Extending beyond the historical parameters of the programme, these moments also seemed to provide an interesting counterpoint to the rest of the performance, problematising the notion of historical authenticity, and providing pause for reflection on the layers of complexity involved in bringing early music to modern audiences.

While La Ritirata provided an evening that was filled with light and joy, La Compagnie del Madrigale explored the darker shades in early music during an evening dedicated to the art of the madrigal. 

The performance was held at St Nicholas (All Souls) Church, appropriately lit in semi-darkness for the event, which also celebrated the 450th anniversary of madrigalist Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613). The Italian prince’s tortured poems of love and death were complemented by a number of other experimental madrigals by his contemporaries, namely Luca Marenzio, Giaches De Wert and Claudio Monteverdi, exquisitely performed by the vocal ensemble of seven.

A great deal of historical context was also provided by Canzona, a group of three female early music specialists in a programme of Venetian Instrumental Baroque music. The versatile trio, joined by Alastair Ross on organ and harpsichord, opened the evening with a sonata for three violins by Giovanni Gabrieli, but were each also highly skilled on a second period instrument.

They were thus able to combine strings, wind instruments (the cornett, recorder and sackbut – or early trombone), along with organ or harpsichord in various wonderful pairings. The performance was a testament to the degree of specialisation now possible in the field, with each performer taking the time to expand upon their particular instrument and the details of its history and performance technique.

The festival also featured two requiem masses, one by Bonaventura Rubino (C. 1600-1668) and the other by Niccolo Jommelli (1714-1774). The performance of the former was of particular significance due to its connection with Malta, the only extant copy of the now-lost manuscript of Rubino’s Missa de Morti a cinque concertata discovered at the Mdina Cathedral Archives in the 1970s. The mass was a collaboration between four different ensembles, including the Cappella Musicale di Santa Maria in Campitelli of Rome, all led by Vincenzo Di Betta, maestro di cappella of Santa Maria in Campitelli.

The various vocal and instrumental forces – the latter including sackbuts, cornett, viola da gamba and theorbo – combined in a truly sumptuous Baroque celebration. Here, care was taken to provide the proper liturgical and musical context of the mass, including the alternation of Latin monodic chant with polyphonic sections. The requiem was also presented with a number of interpolated passages by contemporary composers such as Frescobaldi and Carissimi between the various movements, as was a practice of the period.

The second requiem mass by Jommelli was performed by Ghislieri Choir and consort, led by Giulio Prandi, this time featuring a comparatively less opulent instrumental section of strings and organ.

Indeed, the opening movement of the Jommelli requiem seemed in immediate contrast to that of Rubino, with the choir providing a soft lullaby-like texture above which solo voices sparked up intermittently. However, as the requiem progressed, there were some instances of true vocal virtuosity from the four soloists, as well as intense dramatic power from the full consort. Prandi chose to work from a Neapolitan manuscript which included formal aspects omitted by Jommelli, bringing it closer to the typical structure of the requiem mass.

A second connection with Malta was provided by VIBE (the Valletta International Baroque Ensemble), set up alongside the festival as a means for local musicians to explore and perform a repertoire of early music, under the guidance of various foreign specialists.

One of the two concerts given by the ensemble, entitled A Musical Banquet, featured works by great composers from three different countries, namely Germany, England and Italy.

The ensemble of twenty-one instrumentalists include a string section, wind instruments, harps, and less familiar instruments such as the sackbut and dulcian. Formed only four years ago, they are continuously striving to develop their sound and give greater coherence to their large number of forces.

During this performance, they were joined by three vocalists, Soprano Gillian Zammit, bass Albert Buttigieg and visiting tenor Charles Daniels. While the performance included some well-loved works, such as Dowland’s ‘Flow My Tears’, there were also numerous unexpected points of interest, such as the version of this lute song performed by Daniels in Early Modern English, as might have been heard at the time it was composed.

While some aspects of music from the early modern period might appear curious to some, at the Baroque festival, early music is much more than a passing curiosity.

The in-depth knowledge of international performers has placed Malta within the sphere of the developments currently concerning those working in the field. With next year’s exciting programme already revealed, and big plans in the pipeline for 2018, it’s the authenticity of the passion, dedication and musicianship of all involved which continues to make the festival such a roaring success, and an absolute treat for those attending.

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