The Valletta International Baroque festival began its fifth season this evening with a gently unassuming concert by members of the Italian ensemble Concerto de’ Cavalieri. The title, “The Trumpet Shall Sound” might have implied a grand opening statement, full of fanfares, but in fact the programme of Italian music gave soloist Andrea di Mario ample opportunity to show off the full range of colours in the Baroque trumpet palette; dazzling brightness yes, but also warmth and expressiveness in lyrical passages that really let the instrument sing.

© Mario Mintoff PhotoCity
© Mario Mintoff PhotoCity

Led by Marcello Di Lisa from the harpsichord, the small group of string players (one per part) avoided any grand gestures or unnecessary flamboyance; they slid gently into their opening Corelli Op.3 sonata almost without notice, and everything they played came across as wise and gentle, particularly the slow movements. The second half also began with Corelli, and the intense eye contact between the five string players made for a mesmerising opening to the Op.6 no. 4 concerto; the music was taut, wound up like a spring before leaping off into the busy Allegro.

© Mario Mintoff PhotoCity
© Mario Mintoff PhotoCity
Of the string-only music, Alessandro Scarlatti’s Concerto for strings no. 1 was particularly enjoyable, perhaps because it was musically the most complex piece on the programme and so it gave both the players and the audience a bit more to get their teeth into. Concerto de’ Cavalieri pulled together the disjointed musical ideas of the second movement to create a coherent picture, and violinists Francesca Vicari and Antonio De Secondi had some gorgeous interplay as their lines twisted together in the third.

The two trumpet pieces by Giuseppe Torelli – a sonata and a sinfonia – were light and enjoyable, although probably not hugely memorable apart from the lovely trumpet playing as Andrea Di Mario moved between soft-toned expressivity and delicate flourishes. Like many period instruments the natural trumpet is a fickle and unpredictable creature and so there was the occasional awkward high note but they didn’t detract from Di Mario’s impressive clarity through the trills and ornaments. The last movement of Torelli’s Sinfonia G1 was particularly enjoyable, bubbling over with Baroque happiness. The second half of the programme largely mirrored the first, but with the temperature turned up a notch; Di Mario’s second Torelli piece, Sonata G7 began with a broad, confident statement from the solo trumpet, and demanded a bit more showmanship from the soloist.

The programme notes pointed out that the concert collected together distinctively different musical styles from different Italian cities: Corelli with Roman clarity; Scarlatti from the dark and dangerous world of Naples. Torelli’s trumpet music drew on the traditions of home in Bologna and Vivaldi and Albinoni brought unmistakably Venetian glitz and drama. Albinoni’s Sinfonia from his opera Zenobia seethed with quietly fizzing energy, with sparkling little outbursts of light from the trumpet in the first movement. In the Allegro third movement Di Mario added texture with some very effective shading, attacking notes then pulling away with great control.

© Mario Mintoff PhotoCity
© Mario Mintoff PhotoCity

The two Vivaldi concertos for strings (RV 121 and RV 156) matched the pattern of the evening, so that the fire of the G minor concerto RV 156 really felt like the climax of the concert. RV 121 at the end of the first half was notable for really lovely slow movement, in which the violin seemed distraught with operatic grief. The outer movements of RV 156 were typical Vivaldi – tempestuous and passionate, but Concerto de’ Cavalieri maintained a sense of restraint, and were never going to let Vivaldi’s storms rage unchecked.

The final piece in the programme was a bit of a quirk, almost as if were having an encore piece before the final applause. The Suite in D major, HWV 341 became known as “'Mr Handel's Celebrated Water Piece” but is actually an anonymous arrangement of dances including bits of Handel, for trumpet and orchestra. The Overture comes straight from the Water Music, and Concerto de’ Cavalieri went at it with a refreshing lightness and buoyancy. The light inner movements were all good fun, with a particularly springy Bourée: the anonymous arranger clearly knowing how to bring out the best in the natural trumpet. The final movement uses music from one of Handel’s less well-known operas Partenope, and this spacious and stately march made a satisfying end to the concert.