The Valletta International Baroque Festival concert on 18 January was a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers given by the Valletta International Baroque Ensemble.

© Mario Mintoff/VIBF
© Mario Mintoff/VIBF

This ensemble, formed at last year’s festival, is drawn from prominent Maltese musicians who collaborate with and are coached by international Baroque music specialists. The choir was directed by Eamonn Dougan, associate conductor of The Sixteen.

The venue, in contrast to all of the other venues, was not a Baroque building but rather the 19th-century St Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral, a building built in neo-classical style. Although it is not a Baroque edifice it was built on the foundations of the Auberge d’Allemagne, the home of the German knights of the Order of St John. The undercroft is the original cellar of the Auberge.

Monteverdi’s Vespers are versatile in their conception and the normal mode of performance for this sort of work would have been one singer to each part, with perhaps an occasional reinforcement. The interpretation is open to different combination of voices and instruments.  It is refreshing to hear a different interpretation each time and the VIBE did not let us down this evening.

In the Audi coelum, tenor Nicholas Mulroy was accompanied by the theorbo, as one of the tenors sang the “echoes” from the back of the church, accompanied by the harp. I’m not sure whether it was the position I was sitting in or the acoustics of the very large interior, but I found the echo effect very weak. The echo effect created in the Gloria Patri of the Magnificat, where the responding voice was in a gallery abve the organ worked better.

For the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, the vocal part was performed by a group of ten young singers, the Music Studio Vocal Ensemble. This worked very well as it produced a more angelic sound than the usual soprano arrangement.

The ensemble rose to the many challenges of the music and text to give a highly committed performance, which combined attention to detail, dynamic shading and colour. The polyphony and counterpoint were handled well, and the choral set pieces were complemented by intimate writing for solo voices, accompanied by a single instrument or small groups, such as theorbo or bass violin, or the choir.

The instrumental group comprised a large range of instruments, some of which were new to Maltese audiences. These included dulcian, sackbuts and cornetts. The theorbo was doubled or dueted with a harp to enhance the plucked instruments. The keyboard instruments consisted of two harpsichords and an organ. This array of different timbres enabled a wide variation in the accompaniment to the voices.

For the final multi-movement Magnificat, the chorus and ensemble provided a truly majestic finale that gave the audience all the vocal beauty of Monteverdi’s fine writing giving each section of the chorus perfect opportunities to demonstrate their wonderful tone and full command of the music.

It was particularly impressive in the way that director Eamonn Dougan handled the many parts in which soloists were accompanied not only by instruments but also by small subsections of the chorus. Here the singers and ensemble reached a perfect balance for some of the most sublime moments of the evening.