The Valletta Baroque Festival has been gathering pace since the opening concert four days ago, but reached one of its standout events this evening with The King's Consort, led from the harpsichord and concert organ by Robert King in expansive mood, together with in-demand countertenor Iestyn Davies and the unexpected but very welcome surprise of Crispian Steele-Perkins.

Iestyn Davies © Marco Borggreve
Iestyn Davies
© Marco Borggreve

Despite a generic concert title of "arias and overtures", Robert King resisted the temptation to showcase Handel's best known opera arias, but instead built a thoughtful programme around his oratorios, plus some accompanying overtures and contemporary suites. For Iestyn Davies there was no easy warm up, with the opening piece setting the bar suitably high for the whole evening – the countertenor/trumpet duet “Eternal source of love divine” from the Ode for the birthday of Queen Anne with the master himself, Crispian Steele-Perkins, on Baroque trumpet. The aria sits extremely low in the countertenor range, but Davies approached the piece with his customary poise and composure, and in the compact, intimate space of the Teatru Manoel, his voice ranged through the auditorium with ease and elegance.

Another real highlight was the well-known “Tune your harps to cheerful strains” from Esther.  It is more commonly thought of as tenor repertoire these days (and who can blame them for appropriating one of the most melodious arias ever written?), but between its first edition around 1720 and its revival for theatre some 12 years later, it had been sung by various castrati, a tenor and an alto/countertenor, so it was interesting to hear Iestyn Davies reclaim it for the countertenors. Again, it lent an emphasis on his lower register but taken very slowly it was a beautiful rendition, fully enhanced by the haunting tones of Frances Norbury's oboe and with the pizzicato strings in exactly the right balance so that the three components of this piece (singer, oboe, strings) were ideally weighted, each coming to prominence at exactly the right moment then gracefully yielding.

The long, flowing legato lines of “On the valleys, dark and cheerless” from The triumph of time and truth – a version of Il Trionfo del Tempo re-written by Handel into English – also benefited from Davies' even tone and free-flowing phrasing, whilst his da capo embellishments were poetic, but not overly florid and all the stronger as a result. 

But the concert was by no means a purely vocal affair and the orchestral sections earned their place with some imaginative groupings; particularly effective was an inventive compilation by Steele-Perkins entitled "Mr Handel's warlike pieces", with a march and delightful minuet followed by a rather different orchestration of the Dead March from Saul; played marginally faster than is often heard, by two recorders, two violas and Baroque trumpet, it was quietly captivating and reflective. Incidentally, although it is not unusual to see versatile woodwind players changing instruments through the evening, it was the first time I had seen a second violin (Rebecca Miles) cross the stage on several occasions to take up the role of first recorder; it all added to the Baroque feel of the evening, helped by Robert King's lively and informative addresses to the audience when he described how fitting it was to be playing this music in a theatre contemporaneous to Handel's own period and hence of exactly the right proportions for the music being played and the musical forces playing.

We also heard another warlike oratorio, which had been written to stiffen public resolve in the face of possible war with the Scots, namely the overture to Judas Maccabaeus allied with “Yet can I hear that dulcet lay” from The choice of Hercules delivered sweetly and tenderly and, since it was originally written for the famous castrato Guadagni, tailor-made for Davies’ range and expression.

A rampaging encore delighted the full house, which Davies had last sung on a bicycle suspended in mid-air (at Glyndebourne last summer) and displayed the whole range of his vocal talents in a few short minutes – fast, energetic phrases, dovetailing with quiet and emotive sections accompanied by a sensitive harpsichord and cello continuo, and punctuated with fast coloratura perfectly matched by the bassoon, every note clear and well-articulated.  Altogether a fine conclusion to a highly rewarding concert where all the individual elements (programme, singer, orchestra, leader, trumpet and the theatre itself) fitted like a glove.