Following the runaway success of the first edition of the Valletta International Baroque Festival last year, the second edition got off to an emotional start on Friday 10 January with a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Performances of the festival are held in the magnificent Baroque churches and palaces in Valletta, the venue for this performance being the church of Ta’Giezu, the church of the Friars Minor. Initially built in 1571, with ornate embellishments contributed by various Grand Masters of the Order of Malta, its original façade was replaced in 1680.

The opening performance of the Valletta Festival 2014 © Mario Mintoff/VIBF
The opening performance of the Valletta Festival 2014
© Mario Mintoff/VIBF
The performance was given by the Goldberg Ensemble, named after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who lent his name to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The Goldberg Ensemble is a polyphonic choir consisting of 24 singers specifically chosen from various choirs in Malta. The choir was accompanied by the Anon Ensemble, a flexible group comprising seven musicians, which for this performance consisted of two violins, viola, cello, double bass, trumpet and organ. The ensemble was directed from the harpsichord by Mro Michael Laus, principal conductor of Malta’s national orchestra.

The soloists for this particular performance consisted of three of Malta’s most prestigious soloists: soprano Gillian Zammit, alto Clare Massa, and bass Albert Buttigieg. These were joined by the English tenor Nicholas Mulroy.

The small instrumental group was perfect for the acoustics of the church and provided a balanced accompaniment for the small-scale choir. The separation of the sopranos, which, together with the tenors were positioned on the left-hand side, from the altos, positioned on the right, created a spacial balance which proved to be very effective.

At times the sound from the tenors proved to be a bit weak from my own position near to the front, which was probably due to the acoustics of the venue – it appeared to be satisfactory from comments of members of the audience seated further back.

The soloists performed well, and especially of note was the dramatic heart-wrenching effect in the alto’s solo of “He was despised” and in the so called “rage” aria, “Why do the nations rage”, perfectly executed by Albert Buttigieg. The highlight of the concert was the brilliant performance given by the soprano Gillian Zammit. She showed perfect control over the extended passages, which were sung to perfection. This was especially so in the aria “I know that my Redeemer liveth”. Praise should also go to the violinist Nadia Debono, whose accompaniment to this aria and others always showed a sympathy and rapport with the soloists.

The choir, instrumentalists and soloists provided the packed audience with a most enjoyable evening and a rousing opening to the festival, which continues until 26 January.