It can be argued that Anthony Holborne was one of the earliest composers to write programmatic music. Alongside the Pavanes and Galliards which were conventional at the time, his output also includes a number of evocatively named dances. “The Fairie-Round”, “The Honie-Suckle”, “The Night Watch”; although the titles are poetic and the music certainly characterful, their exact significance remains unknown. Whatever the extra-musical implications may be, these works certainly draw from a more adventurous expressive palette and make use of complex structures, creating a sense of narrative progression.

© Mario Mintoff | Teatru Manoel
© Mario Mintoff | Teatru Manoel

Formed only in 2009, L'Acheron Ensemble is young but assured. With a rich, velvety sound and an instinctive feel for interweaving the parts, the result was highly polished. Perhaps the only major criticism was the interaction between the group in performance: each player was glued to their own music, with few engaging glances between members. The ensemble recorded this programme for their first CD (The Fruit of Love, released on Ricercar), which was well-received; although the performance certainly wasn't flat, perhaps a little more eye contact in concert would elevate the performance to another level.

The strength of L'Acheron Ensemble in this repertoire was their ability to tell a story. Placing emphasis on melodic line lent the music a vocal quality, with the result that the music seemed narrative in quality. This was particularly effective in the more enigmatic pieces, such as “Last Will and Testament”: the intensity with which conductor and treble viol player Francois Joubert-Caillet intoned the melody helped to clarify the structure and illuminate the progression through different moods. The downside of this approach was that hemiolas were often smoothed over, but for the most part this lyrical manner of playing complemented their sonorous blend and chosen tempi.

Of particular interest were the more 'exotic' dances, including “Hermanoza” and “Almaine”. As well as remarkable textures (the former contains an unusually melodic bass line, while the latter consists of a harpsichord tune with plucked accompaniment), the harmonies are striking and bold, and rhythms especially complex. The group injected even more dynamism into the performances of these, lending them a sense of excitement and adventure in keeping with the musical material. Each dance was approached with thought and sensitivity, ensuring that the performance remained colourful and varied despite the homogeneity of the viol sound.

© Mario Mintoff | Teatru Manoel
© Mario Mintoff | Teatru Manoel

The irregular rhythms and disorientating metrical changes of “The Fairie-Round” were approached with subtle playfulness, while crisp, scampering runs defined the buoyant Galliards. A hushed, glowing sound was reserved for more contemplative dances (such as “The Teares of the Muses”), with players tastefully lingering over cadences.

A well-curated programme and an ear for the expressive drew a large crowd to the beautiful Ta' Giezu church: not only those from abroad visiting the Valletta International Baroque Festival, but many locals too. During a break in the programme, Joubert-Caillet took the chance to explain Holborne's historical and cultural significance, as well as describing the instruments joining him on stage. With low ticket prices compared to other European festivals and Baroque music echoing down the Main Street of Valletta, inclusivity is an important part of the festival's ethos. With this thoughtful and attractive concert, L'Acheron Ensemble judged it just right.

 

The Valletta International Baroque Festival runs until Saturday 24 January.