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A seasonal interlude

Albert Storace reviews Vibe’s Christmas concert.

The Valletta International Baroque Ensemble in a past performance.

The Valletta International Baroque Ensemble in a past performance.

As usual, many were the Christmas concerts held all over Malta and Gozo. One of the most suggestive was the one presented by the Valletta International Baroque Ensemble (Vibe). This was in the unique setting of Żejtun’s late medieval, old parish church of St Catherine, popularly known as Ta’ San Girgor.

Vibe was under the direction of the internationally-acclaimed Marco Mencoboni, Monteverdi expert par excellence.

The well-attended concert was one during which one was often quite really transported to a frequently rarefied atmosphere and sound world. It aptly began with the G minor Concerto Grosso Op.6, n.8, Fatto per la note di Natale by Corelli. This featured violin soloists Nadya Debono and Sarah Spiteri, as well as cellist Jacob Portelli, in a very polished performance of the work concluding with its famous lilting lullaby. Vigour and energy were displayed by the two soloists in the taxing Cantata by J.S. Bach, Jauchzet Gott In allen Landen (Exult in God in every land), BWV 51.

Soprano Gillian Zammit dealt the difficult vocal part with great skill and agile coloratura. Trumpet soloist Richard Thomas had his fair share of brilliant passages that contributed to the feeling of triumphant exultation. The hard work Mencoboni had put into the coaching of singers and instrumentalists in singing with style was felt in Lapidabant Stephanum, from the Sacrae Cantiunculae a Tre Voci (1582). This is the first in a set of 23 motets which were the first published works of the then 15-year old composer. 

During the concert one was transported to a frequently rarefied atmosphere and sound world

It is beautiful and already indicative of Monteverdi’s personal style. All 15 members of Vibe’s SATBB vocal ensemble sang in this work which was followed by something never heard/witnessed in this country, not for a few centuries anyway, and  consisting  of an improvisation, Contrappunto alla mente, del primo modo.

Mencoboni introduced this piece, saying that he was not sure whether it would work, but work it did. The ensemble moved to the middle of the aisle and vocalised in quick succession, one voice leaving off while another took over in contrapuntal and sectional exchanges and interplay that was very fascinating.

The final Monteverdi piece was from the First Book of Madrigals (1587),  Ch’ami la vita mia nel  tuo bel nome. This featured ensemble and solo work, the latter being by soprano Gillian Zammit and alto Christine Dalli, tenors Stanley Portelli and Marc Edward Micallef and bass Albert Buttigieg.

The concert concluded with Benigno Zerafa’s lovely Messa in Pastorale a quattro voci con strumenti. This work was forgotten for some two centuries, then discovered and later edited by Geoffrey Thomas.  It consists of the Kyrie and extended Gloria in six movements.

It is one of those works one wished would never end. It unfolded with joyful zest and featured many solo roles the most prominent of which Zerafa allotted to the bass. Albert Buttigieg carried this off with great, authoritative credit. Other soloists were sopranos Andreana Yordanova, Gillian Zammit, Francesca Aquilina and Hannah Bonnici, altos Clare Ghigo and Althea Troïsi de Menville, tenor Miguel Rosales and bass Mark Bartolo.

Kenneth Zammit Tabona, founder of Vibe, paid much deserved tribute to Mgr John Azzopardi, or Dun Ġwann, as he is better known, for his pioneering work in the rediscovery of so much forgotten Maltese sacred music.

The whole ensemble played and sang Happy Birthday to their very surprised founder and concluded the evening with an encore, Silent Night, with soloist Francesca Aquilina, ensemble and audience prodded on by Mro Mencoboni.

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