Different venues with different delights are what characterises the festival and more of them came along with the first to be held at Ta’ Ġieżu church and the only one to be presented at the President’s Palace.
Led by François Joubert-Caillet, who also performed on the treble viol, the Luxemburg-based L’Acheron Ensemble made Ta’ Ġieżu church resound to dance music by the late Elizabethan composer Anthony Holborne. Dubbed The Fruit of Love, if anything this was a good opportunity to hear various members of the viol family (five in all) as well as the cittern, bandora and the trusty ubiquitous harpsichord.
There may have been no voices, but the music sighed and moaned in waves of longing and sadness, some exuberance and optimism, well… the fruit of love. The various moods were very well-projected with various galliards, a pavane and an almaine providing some movement amid such outpourings as Bona Speranza, Last Will and Testament, The Funerals, Infernum, Paradiso, Honie-Suckle and Hermoza to mention but a few.
Never a dull moment, of course, even when the gremlins struck and a cord snapped for one instrument. While the mischief was being repaired a member of the ensemble bravely improvised what sounded like an introduction of the various members of the ensemble.
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What I think was one of the highlights of the festival so far was the only concert held at the President’s Palace. After my home continent, Europe, I make no secret of my predilection for Latin America as next in my preferences.
The native Amerindian, European and African elements in the culture of those vast lands make for a heady mix. Always vibrant and colourful it was what Peter Pontvik’s Ensemble Villancico brought out in so lively as manner when they performed to a packed Throne Room. There was a little bit of everything but that little bit was presented in a way as if the members of the ensemble were to the manner born.
Swedish in all but one case, and with particular reference to the more Latin American-sounding pieces, they gave proof of how music is really an art which knows no frontiers. They could not sound more genuine performing music by baroque composers from Spain and Portugal, mostly born in those countries but who flourished and died in various parts of the New (Iberian) World.
When it came to the vocal element, there were some lovely songs like the soprano solo from Ecuador, Canciòn de una pastorita al Niño Dios. Colourful songs (many from Peru and Bolivia) were sung by all vocal and instrumental forces and some pretty superb unaccompanied works like Deus in auditòrium meum intende by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (Spain/Mexico) and Tristis est anima mea by Juan de Llenas (Mexico).
Adding to the colour and zest were the various numbers choreographed and expertly danced by Kai Sylegård and Daniela Pontvik Valero. The latter lady is from Mexico and is the only Latin American member of the Villancico Ensemble.
They danced galliards, gaytas, xáracas and zarambeques among others. Some were to just instrumental accompaniment, while others were also to vocal accompaniment. The audience response was very enthusiastic and ended up with an even livelier encore of one of the final numbers.
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The following evening, the scene shifted to the Manoel. This was another great highlight and if The King’s Consort is in attendance, it could not be otherwise. Director Robert King is a superb communicator with his witty and often improvised quips which makes the music he directs an even greater delight.
This was an all-Handel programme with the expected all-rounded excellence and finish to the vocal and instrumental works performed. The latter department featured countertenor Iestyn Davies who began with the Birthday Ode for Queen Anne. Her penultimate one as it was to turn out, rather morose too for a birthday offering, but she was a sad case anyway.
As the programme progressed, the singer put his voice to increasingly excellent use in a selection of arias which came in contrasting pairs. Even the orchestral texture reflected the meaning behind the lyrics. The plaintive sadness of a languishing lover was offset by resolute determination with dramatically triumphal overtones.
Supple, flexible, expressive and very clear, Davies certainly steered his way along some very difficult passages from opera and oratorio covering quite a wide range of Handel’s opus.
They came from Esther, The Triumph of Time and Truth, Belsahazzar, Semele and The Choice of Hercules and Jephtha.
The overtures were to Jephtha, Esther, Xerxes and Judas Maccabeus, with some other instrumental music from The Water Music and the rather more serious music described as ‘Mr Handel’s Warlike Pieces’. Very much appreciated and received were the solo trumpet bonbons provided by the virtuoso Crispian Steele-Perkins. The inevitable encore was the most virtuoso rendering of all the vocal pieces of the evening: Venti, turbine, tempestosi from Act I of Rinaldo.
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In this year’s edition of the festival, music by Maltese composer Girolamo Abos (1715-1760) is being featured to mark the tercentenary of his birth. It was at the church of Ta’ Ġieżu that Abos’s music was first performed during this festival and entrusted here to the Passacaglia Ensemble from the UK.
Annabel Knight and Louise Bradbury distinguished themselves in Handel’s Sonata in A, Op.5, No.1, for two recorders and continuo.
Bradbury continued thus in Benedetto Marcello’s Sonata in F, Op. 2, No. 12, while Knight was in the rather more accompanying part in Giardini’s Sonata in D, Op. 2, No. 6 for harpsichord and flute, which gave Robin Bigwood the opportunity to show his keyboard prowess.
Reiko Ichise performed Carl Friedrich Abel’s Three Pieces in D minor for solo viola da gamba, and very well she did too. This was not the only Abel piece heard this evening because the overture from a pastiche Love in a Village had been performed on the harpsichord earlier in the concert. Abel put together this pastiche with Geminiani, who composed the vocal piece If ever a Fond Inclination and adding Abos’s Whence can You Inherit long after our compatriot’s death. All three composers were active in London and contemporaries of Thomas Arne. The latter and Abel composed more music for Love in a Village: the former the andantino, Tempo di Gavotta and Arne’s two arias In Vani I ev’ry Art Essay and the very amusing Believe me dear aunt.
There was no doubting the stylish projection of the instrumental pieces or to a great extent, the vocal numbers all sung by soprano Julia Gooding. The only flaw in her delivery was a not-very-polished upper register and conclusions not all that well-sustained. Her English diction and expression were expectedly fine.
Her Italian in the four Abos operatic arias could pass muster except that she continued singing ‘amore’ when the word was ‘amaro’. That was in Lasciami in pace, which together with Non son le lacrime from the opera Tito Manlio.
Her best all-round interpretation from, beginning to end was Se d’un amor Tiranno credei di trionfar..., which like the final pieces Vendetta mi chiede comes from Artaserse.