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A mixed bag of sounds at the Valletta baroque festival

Albert Storace reviews some of the highlights from the recently concluded two-week-long festival.

With very good reason the midday concert at All Souls church, Valletta, was probably one of the highlights of this year’s Valletta International Baroque Festival.

J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations are monumental enough in scope, vision and achievement, despite the ‘frail’ harpsichord. The world premiere of Gjorgji Cincievski’s transcription was a challenging exercise, and one which, to my mind, succeeded very well.

Cincievski, lead double-bass with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, is very adept at making arrangements of well-known works and this one must be his most ambitious.

He was joined by two French string players of the highest order: Nicolas Dautricourt (violin) and Pierre-Henry Xuereb (viola), and what a team they made.

The sheer, pretty awesome architectural design of the Goldbergs, the intricate variety of mood and great invention, keep one on his toes listening to this music transformed and projected by different means.

Cincievski allots equality in prominence and sharing to each of the instruments, creating a cohesive structure with the three performers being in balanced and harmonious partnership.

Monteverdi’s Vespers

Later that same day, at St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral, there was another landmark performance, the Malta premiere of Monteverdi’s superb Vespro della Beata Vergine. This was performed by the Valletta International Baroque Ensemble.

Also taking part was the well-trained 10-strong children’s Music Studio Vocal Ensemble.

The overall vocal direction was Eamonn Dougan’s and adding to the authentic feeling of the work was a richly varied instrumental ensemble consisting of period instruments, including baroque harp, dulcian and cornets.

This composition is richly varied, consisting of, among others, psalm settings, motets, a hymn and the whole Magnificat.

There is never a dull moment, as the music changes in formation, with frequent involvement of the whole vocal complement.

The Vespers began with a rousing processional and started with Deus in Adjutorium, continuing with Dixit Dominus and other sections, involving all forces.

Nisi Dominus, Lauda Jerusalem and, of course, the concluding Magnificat, were a highlight for their sheer cohesive and balanced sound.

Audi Coelium is for solo tenor, with responses at the end of each stanza echoed by another singer from somewhere at the back of the cathedral.

Enchanted by Rameau

The last in a series of concerts entirely dedicated to Rameau in this year’s baroque festival, was a vocal and instrumental concert at the Manoel.

The concert featured Die Kölner Akademie under the inspired direc­tion of William Alexander Willen, with the participation of French soprano Maïlys de Villoutreys and British tenor Ed Lyon.

The longest single orchestral pieces were the overtures to Dardanus and that to Pigmalion, both delivered in sparkling style. Regarding the two singers, there was little to tell them apart in the way of accomplishment.

Maybe Lyon had a slight edge on the soprano simply because he could interpret a slightly wider variety of emotions in the arias he sang. His comic Arietta badine, Que ce séjour est agreable, from Platée, was an example.

That was in the second half of the concert, but the first to sing was the soprano, who began with Regnez Plaisirs from Dardanus and continued with the arresting aria Sur les ombres fugitives from Castor et Pollux, which had a considerable dose of well-handled coloratura.

The lighter Jeux et ris qui suivez, from Pigmalion, was followed with another change of well-projected plaintive mood in Implore Amour, from Pigmalion.

Yet again, this happened in an aria from Dardanus, Quand l’aquilon fougueux, which took one back to forceful coloratura.

A number of pieces were sung by Lyon. Appropriately jubilant was his Triomphe Amour from Dardanus, replete with some difficult coloratura passages, which were crisply clear in delivery.

The following Lieux Funestes, with bassoon obbligato to make it even more touching, was very beautiful.

It contrasted well with the happy Regne Amour, and again with his slowly subdued Séjour de l’Eternelle Paix from Castor et Pollux.

This preceded an orchestral piece, Tambourin from Dardanus, which was in turn followed by Maïlys de Villoutreys singing the lovely Vole Zéphir from Les Fêtes d’Hebé.

Gjorgji Cincievski’s transcription was a challenging exercise, one which succeeded very well

The slow and stately Sarabande, from Castor et Pollux, was highly contrasted by Lyon’s very fine interpretation of Fuis, fuis from Les fêtes d’Hebé.

The soprano’s own versatility served her well, especially in Tristes apprêts pales flambeaux, from Castor et Pollux, and again in De mirthe couronnez from Dardanus. Both halves of the concert ended with duets, first Témoins de mes feux from Zaïs and Triomphe Amour from Dardanus.

Ballet music in the second half came from Castor et Pollux, Dardanus and Pigmalion, and was as refreshing as that in the first half.

Seduced by Venus

For the first time, a festival event was presented in the Grand Salon of the Auberge de Provence. The venue lent itself well to a double bill by Charles de Blamont and Johann Sebastian Bach.

The main protagonist in the extended secular cantata, La Toilette de Venus, was soprano Claudia Patacca.

Audiences will remember her from last year’s festival as the cook in Telemann’s Pimpinone, in a memorable staging at the President’s Palace. She was also co-protagonist in Bach’s so-called Coffee Cantata.

La Toilette de Venus is a one-woman show accompanied by the eight-strong Valletta International Baroque Ensemble consisting of violins, viola, cello, flutes and continuo.

Blamont’s work is an unashamed hymn of adulation for Venus, in which the presumably far from modest goddess has her praises sung.

In her narrator’s role, Patacca launched into the part with zest. The singer was in very good vocal form, performing a number of recitatives and arias, with fully-balanced backing from the music ensemble.

Coffee entered the story in Bach’s Cantata Schweigt Stille Plaudert Nicht, better known as the Coffee Cantata.

The advantage, here, is that one could relate much more realistically to a send-up of real situations in the past, when coffee-drinking was frowned upon by certain sections of society.

In this charming romp, Bach takes to task both the unrepentant coffee addicts, here represented by Patacca as the recalcitrant, rebellious and very capricious Lieschen and her father Schlendrian, a rabid anti-coffee stalwart and rich merchant performed with great fortitude and patience by bass Albert Buttigieg.

This concert was partly sponsored by The Friends of the Manoel Theatre. This was another worthy gesture by this association, aimed at helping the Manoel promote its many activities.

Sunday baroque extravaganza

If the aim of the directors of the festival was to keep music lovers busy for the best part of the day, they managed this very well with three concerts on a particular Sunday.

The first event was a recital by Classica Pizzicata from Italy, a quartet of two mandolins, a mandola and guitar. The ting-a-ling sound of these instruments filled the Throne Room at the President’s Palace. It was a pity that it was not possible to have a raised platform, so that the performers could be seen.

The recital consisted of a number of works, all of which were per-for­med to arrangements by Giorgio Mellone.

The format was pretty much the same: five sinfonias from obscure operas by Sarri, Porpora, Hasse, Vinci and Leo with slow movements flanked by faster outer movements, charming if repetitive.

When things promised to be different with the programmed Piccola Suite by Scarlatti, the quartet dropped that, and two other works, for a Sonata a Tre by Jommelli.

This was also in three movements, but somehow sounded more fresh and interesting.

So did the two encores, Antidotum Tarantulare and Tarantella del ‘600, both anony-mous 17th-century works.

For those who like the languor and melancholy of vocal music, which John Dowland was able to compose aplenty, listening to tenor Justin Burwood was the best thing one could do with an afternoon.

He was accompanied by a very accomplished lutenist, Magnus Andersson, in a recital at the splendidly restored church of Santa Caterina d’Italia.

Burwood’s voice is wide-ranging, from light tenor to deeper reaches heading towards high baritone and he used it well. Diction was perfect, and the whole approach was one of serenity, resignation or even dreamy at the prospect of assuaged passion.

Applause never interrupted the recital at any point but exploded with great force at the end, after which the duo interpreted a French song from the same period, Cruelle, Tyranne de Mon Desire.

Rounding off the evening was a truly fine display of musicality and virtuosity at the church of All Souls. This was thanks to a performance of French music for viola da gamba and harpsichord, respectively featuring Emmanuelle Guigues and Bruno Procòpio.

The elegance and style of these performers was firmly established at the start, when they performed Couperin’s Suite N. 1 in E minor, as balanced and as complementary as could be, ever mindful of texture and dynamics.

This was followed by D’Anglebert’s Suite N. 1 in D Major for solo harpsichord, with Bruno Procòpio in best possible form.

Emmanuelle Guigues perfor-med Tombeau pour Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe. The work is not an easy one, but it was excellently performed.

So were three pieces by Forqueray, the first two, La Rameau and Jupiter were for solo harpsichord, while the viola da gamba joined in for La Couperin.

A veritable tour-de-force for both performers were the 32 couplets on La folia d’España by Marin Marais. The sheer invention of the set and the fine performance were pretty impressive. The evening was rounded off with the duo performing an encore, Forqueray’s La Leclair.

The brilliance of Bach

Joanne Camilleri’s piano recital at the Sala Isouard was the penul­timate concert of the festival. It was also one of the best, and the only one featuring just one performer.

The elegance and style of these performers was firmly established at the start

Alone at the piano, completely exposed and with nobody else but her own resolve, concentration and preparation, this young pianist proved yet again that she keeps going from strength to strength. No wonder connoisseurs rate her as one of the best of her generation we have.

The programme took the audience along a clearly marked path, that of the development of Bach’s compositions.

The Capriccio sopra la lonta­nanza del suo fratello dilettissimo, which Bach wrote when he was 21, still causes debate regarding whether he really wrote it for a brother.

That much was stressed by the pianist who referred to certain points she brought out later , when she performed the work.

In her introduction to the English Suite N. 2, Camilleri said that there were a lot of notes to be played, and that was very true. The notes were as complex as one could imagine, definitely more mature and very compact too.

Following the prelude, the different dance movements were well-shaped, delineated and contrasted. They were perhaps a little too fast in the last two, when there seemed to be little to differentiate the bourée from the gigue.

In the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, the pianist projected two particular aspects which characterise Bach.

The composer’s genius for improvisation and mastery of the fugue, with its solid and fascinating musical architecture, never fails to command awe.

This was illustrated thanks to the touch and depth of feeling of a sensitive performer who leaves nothing to chance.

A rousing conclusion

The villains and lovers in question are the characters from various operas by Rameau and Handel in the festival’s concluding concert at the Presidential Palace.

I think the real villain of the piece was the bug which forced baritone Justin Burwood to withdraw from the concert.

Counter-tenor Cenk Karaferya had to give up his solos and his role was reduced to forming part of ensembles in which he could barely be heard.

I also found out that some of the ladies were not unaffected, even if perhaps in a milder form.

Ian Peter Bugeja conducted Les Bougies Baroques at the harpsichord with his usual zest, energy and utter passion for baroque.

The non-vocal parts of the concert consisted of the overtures to Rameau’s Castor et Pollux and Zoroastre, a number of dances selected from the former of the above operas and another selection from Handel’s Alcina.

In order to make up for the lost numbers, mezzo-soprano Clare Ghigo sung Ombra mai’ fù from Handel’s Serse.

In the second half, soprano Nicola Said sang another immortal Handel piece, Lascia ch’io pianga from Rinaldo.

Soprano Claudia Tabone broke the ice of sobriety with her highly humorous Aux langueurs d’Apollon, from Rameau’s Platée.

This was an excellently humorous piece, combining very good vocal form with comic interpretation.

One of the vocal highlights of the concert was Clare Ghigo’s full coloratura in Dopo Notte, from Handel’s Ariodante, which contrasted so well with her plaintive and very well-controlled Cruelle mère des amours from Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie.

In the trio which concluded the first part, Tabone, Ghigo and Karaferya sang Non è amor nè gelosia from Handel’s Alcina.

In the second half, Ghigo sang her rage aria Crude Furie from Handel’s Serse, the vehemence of which was contrasted very well by Said’s beautiful lament, Tristes apprêts, pâles flambeaux from Rameau’s Castor et Pollux.

Tabone returned in forcefully serious guise in Vo’ far Guerra; the harpsichord part in this aria is of near-virtuoso proportions, with plenty of urgency and drive.

Closing the concert was Caro più amabile beltà from Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto, sung by Said and Ghigo, after which Tabone and Karaferya joined in Ritorni omai nel nostro core. This final joyous excerpt was encored in part.

This festival has been a very fine series of events which has done its organisers proud. Even the piped music in Republic Street was baroque and so soothing to the ear.

Of course, there is always room for improvement here and there and one looks forward to next year’s edition and more exciting baroque music in the beautiful venues in Valletta chosen to present the concerts.

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