Unforgettable evenings
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Unforgettable evenings

From de Victoria to Zerafa and Telemann to Rameau, Albert Storace reviews some highlights from the Valletta International Baroque Festival.

Perhaps one of the most famous  composer-priests is Tomás Luís de Victoria, “the Spanish Palestrina,” whose Lamentations and Responsories for Holy Week stretch from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. They were performed at the church of St Francis, Republic Street, Valletta.

The interpreters, La Grande Chapelle, were directed by Albert Recasens and formed of an SSAATTBB vocal ensemble of eight singers. It was an unforgettable evening of the purest possible polyphonic singing. The texture of the voices, the smoothness and effortless singing were beautiful and spiritually uplifting.

The darkened atmosphere in the church was ideal as nothing but candles lit the church. These came from a stand close to the singers. When the series of psalms, motets, lessons and responsories flowed across in quasi-ethereal manner, a candle was snuffed out at regular intervals. The singing touched upon and projected all the different emotions the events of Holy Week evoke, especially the very contrasting ones between Good Friday and the triumphant fulfilling joy of Easter Sunday. What a pity that half the church was empty for what was one of the highlights of this festival.

Benigno Zerafa is one of the best known Maltese priest-composers, thanks to the revival of his music  through research and editing of it by local and foreign scholars. A performance of two of his works was given at Mdina Cathedral where Zerafa was Kapellmeister for many decades.

The concert was to mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Cathedral Archives for research. Among foreign music societies who have shown interest in Zahra’s works is the 56-strong Collegium Orpheus from Brittany, directed by Jean-Marc Labylle.

They began with the Messa a Due Cori in G Major, Z96 and dating to 1756 and which has been edited by Frederick Aquilina, who made a brief introduction to the concert.  This performance was a bit disappointing and a cut below what had been on offer during this festival. This was mainly the case with the Mass, where it took some time for the two choral sections to convincingly get to grips with the work. The interplay was rather weak and sometimes one of the choirs was barely audible. Of the four soloists soprano Joanne Cassar (who happens to be of Maltese descent) was by far on best form.

As counter-tenors go, Jean-Michel Fumas cut a reasonably good figure go, while tenor Christophe Einhorn could have sung with a little more vigour.  Bass Piero Luca Porri has a very fine and richly resonant bass voice unfortunately offset by a little impediment in the only solo he had, the Tu solus Altissimus from the Gloria. A work in the same key, and also for double chorus, Dixit Dominus Z95, (edited by Ms Christine Gauci), fared a little better. Better still was the encore, a Lauda Sion by Vivaldi, for soprano, alto (Joanne Cassar and Juliette Rouzer) and choir sang in homage to renowned Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot.

The texture of the voices, the smoothness and effortless singing were beautiful and spiritually uplifting

The lunchtime recital at Our Lady of Victories church, Valletta’s oldest building was the venue of a ‘first’ for both church and festival. Now that it has been so beautifully restored, the church could host its first VIBF event. This was something which, as he said before the concert, had always been festival director Kenneth Zammit Tabona’s dream.

Simone Mizzi, former president of Din l-Art Ħelwa – which had undertaken the church’s restoration – said a few words about its history. The performance was a set of Telemann’s 12 Fantasias for solo Flute by a leading expert in the field, Ian Mclaren. Scholarly research dates these works to the late 1720s and they were being performed on the flautist’s copy of an Uberlander flute of the same period. The instrument is mainly built of boxwood, Alpine cow-horn with some silver bands at intervals along its length.

He explained this when he had played the first seven fantasias. Therefore, instrument and church combined to give as close an ideal sound as possible to the music. Except for that informative little chat the fantasias were performed with very brief breaks. Being in related keys, performed in sequence from A Major to G minor so expertly, that there was never a dull moment with so many different colours and moods wafting in that beautiful small space.

A selection of vocal and orchestral excerpts from various operas by Rameau was presented at the Manoel Theatre by Les Ambassadeurs, directed by Alexis Kossenko and featuring our soprano Claire Debono, who delighted us with her limpid and (when necessary) very strong voice depending on the mood of the piece.  Moods were as varied as the operas from which the arias were extracted.  Her rendering O Diane from L’Enlèvement de Adonis was deeply felt, as were the pastoral Musettes Rèsonnez and Viens, Hymen, both from Les Indes Galantes.

Uniquely here, in the latter, the soprano was joined by Kossenko on the flute as he is also an accomplished flute player.  His direction also gets the desired effect from the orchestra.

The various dances from, among others Hippolyte et Aricie, Platèe,  Anacrèon and Acante et Céphise, had their particular charm. The Overtures from Zoroastre, Naïs and Zaïs were crisp and fresh.  So was Debono’s voice evoking the fluttering of a butterfly in Papillon Inconstant (Les Indes Galantes) and the fury in Vaste Empire des Mers from the same opera, with pretty ferocious orchestral effects, complete with wind machine and very aggressive percussion.

Debono’s rendering of Tristes Apprêt (Castor et Pollux) was very poignant matched by the lovely Chassons de nos plaisirs (Acante et Céphise). Kossenko’s direction of Marche (from La Princesse de Navarre) was very bouncy, while Debono’s parting shot was supreme coloratura and great bravura in Air de folie from Aux langueurs d’Apollon.

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