Discovering early music is like falling down a rabbit hole into an alternate universe of strange instruments, unfamiliar composers and unusual performance practices. At the Valletta International Baroque Festival, Baroque music is presented on its own terms, yet audiences of all ages and levels of musical knowledge are invited to engage with it.
Thus, the fourth edition of the Baroque Festival featured a varied programme: from the familiar, as in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Bach’s Goldberg Variations, to the downright obscure, as in the presentation of a work discovered in local archives, and only recently performed for the first time.
While the performances might sometimes be challenging, the audience rarely feels that it’s been left out in the cold, as attested by the numerous informative ‘asides’ during concerts, as well the copious programme notes provided with every event. One of the significant threads running through the festival is the concern with historically informed performance.
Baroque musicians are often not only performers, but also researchers and experts in their ever-deepening field, and perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of the festival is the manner in which historical context is provided for the music. And of course, there’s also the architectural context of some wonderful Baroque buildings in Valletta.
In keeping with this aspect of the festival was the opening concert: a performance of J.S. Bach’s ‘Musical Offering’ by Le Concert Des Nations, directed by world-renowned viol player and composer Jordi Savall. Savall is strongly associated with the early music revival of the 1970s both in his native Spain and abroad.
In Savall, years of research and study inform the interpretation of scores such as this, which often contain limited practical indications. Savall’s chosen order for the performance opened with the famous ‘Thema Regium’ – the theme provided by Friedrich II of Prussia to J.S. Bach, upon which the latter was asked to produce a six-part fugue. The theme wound through the complexities of Bach senior’s beautifully constructed work, though unfortunately on this occasion, little effort was made to draw audiences into the performance by the orchestra.
From the Prussian court to that of Naples, La Ritirata ensemble presented a wonderfully impassioned picture of the music heard at the Aragonese court at Naples, highlighting its rich musical culture during this period.
The evening included virtuosic performances by solo members of the ensemble on their respective instruments. The group’s director, Josetxu Obregon, performed a number of works by early cellists (Vitali, Gabrielli and Jacchini) which served to illustrate the elevation of the status of the cello at this time from a continuo to a solo instrument.
The solo performances by members of La Ritirata also included improvisations on early modern works, as in Enrike Solinis’ interpretations on Baroque guitar – evidently indebted to the rich tradition of Spanish guitar. Extending beyond the historical parameters of the programme, these moments also seemed to provide an interesting counterpoint to the rest of the performance, problematising the notion of historical authenticity, and providing pause for reflection on the layers of complexity involved in bringing early music to modern audiences.

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