After the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, Jean de Vallette commissioned the construction of a new city, laying the first stone himself. Valletta was born, soon becoming Malta’s capital city. With a population of almost 6,500, Valletta is still tiny by the standards of a European capital, but every January top Baroque ensembles gather for the Valletta International Baroque Festival.

Ceiling of the Teatru Manoel © R Muscat
Ceiling of the Teatru Manoel
© R Muscat
Inaugurated in 2013, the festival is seen as a celebration of Valletta’s Baroque identity. Many of the events take place in the Teatru Manoel – Malta’s national theatre and one of the oldest working theatres in Europe. Built in 1731 by António Manoel de Vilhena, Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, its intended purpose was primarily “to keep the young knights of the Order of St. John out of mischief(!) but also to provide the public with "honest entertainment".

Originally known as the Teatro Pubblico, it seats an audience of 623 within an oval auditorium beneath an exquisite gold leaf and pale blue trompe-l'oeil ceiling. Other concerts take place at various venues, including St John’s Co-Cathedral, the construction of which dates back to 1573.

Home talent is in evidence in the 2016 line-up. The Valletta Baroque Festival Ensemble is the resident ensemble. It’s a young ensemble, only inaugurated in 2012, but giving highly committed performances, which combined attention to detail, dynamic shading and colour according to our 2014 review. The VBFE performs Gabrieli at this year’s fesitval, plus a mixed programme including concertos by Telemann, Vivaldi and Wassenaer.

Maltese pianist Joanne Camillieri joins Catherine Martin, the leader of the Gabrieli Consort and Players, for a lunchtime recital of Bach’s violin and keyboard sonatas. They were composed as a set of six sonatas – Bach clearly liked the number six: six cello suites, six Brandenburg Concertos, six English Suites! However, there is no sense of them being a ‘cycle’. Camilleri and Martin present the last three sonatas.

Mahan Esfahani © Bernhard Musil | DG
Mahan Esfahani
© Bernhard Musil | DG
The Malta Philharmonic puts a neo-baroque spin on things with a cleverly programmed concert. Respighi’s suite The Birds is based on works inspired by birdsong by a number of Baroque composers. Most famous of these is Rameau’s The Hen, but Respighi also raids Pasquini and Gallot. Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, based on the commedia dell’arte character, was based on melodies attributed at the time to Pergolesi (but since disproved). The programme also includes two 20th century harpsichord concertos, performed by rising star Mahan Esfahani. Francis Poulenc’s Concert champêtre was composed in 1927 for Wanda Landowska, who almost single-handedly revived the popularity of the instrument in the early 20th century. Górecki’s Harpsichord Concerto was written in 1980, dedicated to the soloist Elżbieta Chojnacka. Just nine minutes long, the composer once referred to it as “a prank”. The soloist is kept busy throughout, a whirlwind of energy.

The international scale of the festival is evident when scanning the ensembles visiting for 2016. Many ensembles hail from Italy, including the period instrument perfomers AbChordis which performs a programme of lesser-known Italian composers such as Bononcini, Bassani and Sammartini at the Ta' Ġieżu Church.

Arianna Art Ensemble presents an all-Vivaldi concert entitled “The Legend of Orlando: Battles, Love and Madness”. Including Vivaldi’s “Folia” (“Madness”) trio, they present the programme twice, once as a Schools concert. Gli Arcchi, another Italian ensemble, puts a Baroque flavour to Lennon and McCartney hits in “Beatles Go Baroque”.

St John's Co-Cathedral in the 2015 festival © Valletta International Baroque Festival
St John's Co-Cathedral in the 2015 festival
© Valletta International Baroque Festival
Jordi Savall and Le Concert des Nations open the 2016 festival with Bach’s The Musical Offering, a collection of keyboard canons and fugues which Savall presents scored for full Baroque ensemble. Bach cantatas form the backbone of another high profile group: the Collegium Vocale Gent, led by Philippe Herreweghe.

From England, Canzona presents “Venetian Graces”, inspired by songs from Venice, at the President’s Palace, while established Baroque band La Serenissima also looks to Venice with three concerts, closing with the ever-popular Four Seasons.

The festival’s stated aim is to “extend the Baroque map of Europe”, which it achieves both by inviting such fine international artists, but also by putting Malta on the map as a destination for classical music lovers.

 

Article sponsored by Valletta International Baroque Festival