The Malta Independent 18 January 2020, Saturday

Reaching out through Baroque music at Christmas time

Tuesday, 14 January 2020, 13:06 Last update: about 4 days ago

Celine Schembri

The Valletta Baroque Ensemble (ViBE) hosted the eighth edition of their annual Christmas concert at the church of St Magdalene in Valletta, on 22 December. Comprising of 13 musicians, together with a soprano and bassist, the ensemble performed Christmas works from Baroque composers namely Giuseppe Torelli, Michael Praetorius, Michel Corrette, Alessandro Scarlatti and Arcangelo Corelli.

ViBE marked its beginning with an inaugural concert held in December 2012 and have ever since pursued their dream of being the only ensemble in Malta to present historically informed performances from the Renaissance to late Baroque periods on original instruments loyal to their time. One may observe how this goal has been successfully realized through the attendance to their public concerts. All proceeds from the tickets purchased during the evening go towards the Ladybird Foundation, a foundation which aids in bringing joy to terminally ill children living in Malta. The funds from this concert will be essential to help fulfill a child's dream during their difficult times.

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The evening commenced with a brief introduction from Sarah Spiteri, one of the founders of ViBE, where she explained that this particular concert will feature pieces relevant to the Christmas season, performed on baroque instruments. The composers themselves wrote these works specifically to celebrate Christmas. It is worth noting here that Christmas carols had not yet been composed at that time. The main element which classifies these baroque pieces as pertaining to Christmas is the pastorale, a lullaby particularly sung by shepherds while flocking their herds. Composers managed to highlight this pastorale movement in all their Christmas pieces particularly those performed during this concert.

The three-movement composition by the Italian Baroque violist, Giuseppe Torelli, Concerto Grosso in G minor Op.8, No.6 - Concerto a quattro in forma di Pastorale per il Santo Natale transported the audience on their journey back to the Baroque period. The ensemble was comprised of five violins, two violas, two cellos, one double bass, one organ and one bassoon. All the Maltese musicians were accompanied by the Spanish performer Pablo Zapico, playing the theorbo, a plucked stringed instrument with 14 strings that forms part of the lute family. The theorbo has an extended neck attached to it along with two sets of tuning peg boxes. The player plucks the strings with one hand while at the same time pressing down the strings with the other. Overall, the musicians produced a consistent phrase structure which aided in creating an authentic Baroque setting. In a baroque setting, every performer is a soloist. Since during the Baroque period ensemble playing relied on the leader of the first violins taking the role in leading the entire ensemble, this evening's concert adopted that approach. The leader for the evening, Nadia Debono managed to fulfill the role with utmost precision and vividness. All the musicians kept an eye on their leader which aided the team to deliver an outstanding rendition of the compositions.

Thereafter, the ensemble interpreted Es ist ein Ros entspringen, a composition by the German organist and composer, Michael Praetorius, composed during the 17th century. This hymn is commonly used as the tune to the hymn A Great and Mighty Wonder. The Maltese bass singer Albert Buttigieg, accompanied by ViBE, presented this piece with very good diction of the German language and vocal timbre. The articulation and harmonized structure delivered by the musicians were fused together with the soloist's resonance.

Concerto Noel Allemande for strings and continuo followed as the third piece for the evening by French organist and composer, Michel Corrette. Its original instrumentation composition was intended for flute, two violins and basso continuo. However, the ensemble, set up during the evening, was that of three violins, cello, organ as the basso continuo and theorbo. The leader and first violinist, Nadia Debono delivered the flute part on her baroque violin. In order to enhance the element of a basso continuo, the cellist doubled with the organist. The addition of the theorbo blended very well with the other stringed instruments.

The penultimate piece performed during the evening was Cantata Pastorale Non so qual piu m'ingombra by the Italian Baroque composer, Alessandro Scarlatti. The Maltese soprano Gillian Zammit sang this along with two violins, cello, organ and theorbo. The richness of the piece was further heightened through her tone quality and vocalization. Here, the performers both complemented each other and delivered a balanced harmony as good support to the vocal line very idiomatic of the baroque style.

The hour-long concert concluded with the famous work by Italian Baroque violinist Arcangelo Corelli, Concerto grosso Op.6 No. 8 Fatto per la Notte di Natale, commonly known as Corelli's Christmas Concerto. This concerto grosso forms part of a selection of 12 concerti grossi composed by Corelli himself. The concerto grosso in G minor featured during the evening, presents an expansion from the typical four movement structure to that of six movements. Each short movement includes various time signatures and modulations from minor to major keys. All the 13 musicians joined forces in presenting this work in a homogeneous manner with sensitive attention to dynamics, tempo and articulation.

The natural sound acoustics of the church of St Magdalene as the chosen venue for this concert helped greatly in the projection of a wonderful sound very much reminiscent of the period. At this stage, it is worth noting that for this concert the ensemble followed instrumental practices and set-ups typical of the Baroque such as the use of a baroque bow by all the string instruments with the violins having neither a chin rest nor a shoulder rest, shorter finger boards and the use of gut strings instead of nylon strings. All such considerations increased resonance and produced a more idiomatic instrumental timbre typical of the period. Consequently, having gut strings meant that in the course of performance the instruments needed regular tuning. The musicians showed great ability in tuning their instruments without taking much time, effectively maintaining the attention of the audience, mainly, by drawing their attention to this technical exigency and implied process. In contrast to the standard four-string orchestral double bass the double bass used for this concert consisted of only three strings typical of many double basses before the 20th century.

Overall, this was a very pleasant and successful concert very engaging both in terms of repertoire and the exceptional way in which it was performed, as well as visually with aspects of performance practices adding more meaning to the music.

 


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