The main course of the sumptuous feast, under the title of the Valletta International Baroque Festival, arrived on 17 January. The fare was an international favourite with a Maltese surprise.

The OAE in St John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta © Mario Mintoff
The OAE in St John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta
© Mario Mintoff

The concert, the eighth in the series, was given by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the magnificent setting of the ornate St John’s Co-Cathedral.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment needs very little introduction to readers of these reviews, and neither do the items of the published programme. To Maltese audiences, however, this was a unique opportunity to hear and see a world renowned orchestra performing on their island. The evening was enhanced by the unique setting of the cathedral of the Order of the Knights of St John.

The programme included music of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. The vocal works were performed by the renowned Schola Cantorum of Oxford.

The opening work allowed us to hear the orchestra in the familiar Orchestral Suite no. 3 by J.S. Bach. There was a moment of hesitation between the Overture and the Air to allow the clock of the Cathedral to strike eight o’clock – eight seconds seemed endless!

The orchestra was joined by the Schola Cantorum for a performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria in D. The orchestra provided a perfect accompaniment for the choir and adapted to the acoustics of the venue. All too often there are problems with an orchestra accompanying solo singers where the soloist is in competition with the orchestra. This was not so in this case: the accompaniment was a perfect marriage. A highlight for me of this work was the Domine Deus, in which the solo soprano duets with the oboe. The matching of the two voices was perfect and both the soloists seemed to enjoy working together, this was apparent in their reactions to each other and from the music.

The second half of the concert commenced with Zadok the Priest by Handel, and the final work on the programme was the magnificent Magnificat in D by Bach. This work also produced a highlight in the form of a bass solo, the aria Quia fecit mihi magna. In this aria the solo bass is accompanied by a basso continuo consisting of violoncello, Double bass and organ. The accompaniment is lively and almost dance-like. The two string players obviously enjoyed the work from the pleased expressions on their faces. All too often orchestral players seem to be concentrating on the score or the conductor with a fixed expression. Here, though, the enjoyment that the performers had was transmitted to the audience.

After what was thought to be the final applause the conductor of the orchestra, James Burton, addressed the audience thanking them for the invitation to play in Malta in the magnificent surroundings of the cathedral. He asked the audience’s indulgence in performing one last piece. He said it was their gift to Malta.

This gift turned out to be part of a work by the Maltese Baroque composer Benigno Zerafa (1726–1804), which had been especially edited for this performance from a manuscript in the archives of Mdina Cathedral by the Maltese scholar Dr Frederick Aquilina, the piece was given its first public performance in over 250 years.

Zerafa’s music reflects the Neapolitan Galant Style of the mid-century. The setting of the final movement (Cum sancto spiritu – Amen) from Zerafa’s Messa a due cori in D (Z2) of 1743, which he composed at the age of 17 while studying at the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo in Naples. It was performed magnificently by the choir and orchestra, and the audience gave the performers a resounding ovation.

The Valletta International Baroque Festival committee had considered this to be the flagship concert of the festival. The performance was by invitation only, attended also by two ex-presidents and the current prime minister. The general public were to be allowed entry dependent upon availability of spare seats. Despite the torrential downpour just before the concert, many waited and were rewarded with, at least, standing space. During the interval there was not a square inch of floor-space left at the rear or in the side chapels.

It was fantastic concert in a wonderful setting: a sumptuous main course. The following day I sampled the sweet.