For the opening concert in the third Valletta International Baroque Festival, the theme “Nine Lamentations” seems oddly sombre. However, as artistic director Kenneth Zammit Tabona noted, it could not be more appropriate in light of recent events. With a striking performance of Robert White's Lamentations bringing the evening to an unforgettable close, the Nederlands Kamerkoor, under the baton of Paul van Nevel, both paid tribute to the tragedies of the past week and set a high bar for the rest of the festival.

Nederlands Kamerkoor © Valletta International Baroque Festival
Nederlands Kamerkoor
© Valletta International Baroque Festival

The Church of St Nicolas (All Souls) is structured around a centrally placed Greek cross, with a dome over the centre. It was here, in the middle of the church, that the performance took place: the singers of the Nederlands Kamerkoor formed a circle, facing inwards, with the audience extending outwards into the four arms of the cross around them. As well as lending the venue a wonderful resonance, this arrangement also created a wonderful sense of intimacy, drawing the audience into the world of English polyphony. The Nederlands Kamerkoor's performance may not have been technically immaculate, but it certainly was not lacking colour or shape. Van Nevel's excellent grasp of the structure of these vocal works was manifest in the arched phrases, which accumulated towards points of particular structural significance.

The differentiation of textual content was highly effective, as was the singers' responsiveness to one another: imitative passages were approached with real direction, always pressing forwards under Van Nevel's firm beat. However, the pitch occasionally dipped (especially in White's Magnificat) and the blend within parts was not always ideal, both of which can be fatal in this repertoire. Musicality and expressiveness meant that the Nederlands Kamerkoor ultimately triumphed. The honesty of their performance of of Gilbert Banaster's Hymnus Exsultet coelum created a sense of confessional intimacy. The unexpected harmonic twists lent themselves well to textual expression, while the intensity of the long-breathed lines only furthered the sense of rapt concentration.

The same intent came through in Tu cum virgineo mater honore, a hymn from the Office of the Virgin Mary. The lightness with which Van Nevel approached the ends of phrases brought warmth to this hymn of devotion, softening the formality of the words. Edmund Sturton's Gaude Virgo Mater Christi introduced a different and altogether more joyful mood. Decorative flourishes and false relations invigorated the text, and Van Nevel fostered a sense of growth directed towards the final Alleluia. Certain moments (the penultimate verse in particular) might have benefited from more flexibility, but the luminosity of harmonic changes and the open sound helped to compensate for these reservations.

Nine Lamentations © Valletta International Baroque Festival
Nine Lamentations
© Valletta International Baroque Festival

White's Magnificat also may not have been without its flaws (the wandering pitch and the blend within parts), but the soaring lines and the spaciousness granted by the acoustic meant that the overall impression was positive. White's exquisite Lamentations brought the concert to a stunning close. Tender yet anguished, aching yet dignified, the Nederlands Kamerkoor's performance was superlative. It was memorable as much for the presentation as the singing: candlesticks were interspersed between the singers and extinguished one by one as the work progressed, until the final verse was sung in pitch black: a truly spine-chilling moment if ever there was one. As darkness gathered, textures grew increasingly sparse, with percussive consonants injecting violence to temper the beauty of the polyphony. A heartfelt and moving response to the tragic events mentioned earlier in the evening, as well as a hauntingly beautiful performance in its own right.

 

The Valletta International Baroque Festival runs until Saturday 24 January.

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