VIAF 2014

Wonderful double fare by the Hortensia Virtuosa Ensemble

Last year we thought of introducing something ‘new’ to our Festival. Playing in the stupendous environs of one of Gozo’s most beautiful Baroque churches, namely, St George’s Basilica; having one of the islands’ most beautifully preserved Baroque organs; having also lately acquired a model of the 1785 Antunes harpsichord; and, last but not least, possessing a priceless Baroque organ built by Richard Vendome and his friends and very generously donated to St George’s Basilica by our friend and Oxford scholar, Richard (where it lives in the Aula Mgr G. Farrugia) – well, the ingredients were all thee for a successful venture, namely, a series of Baroque concerts to be included within the wider framework of the Victoria International Arts Festival.

Last year’s pilot project was greeted with tremendous enthusiasm by both patrons and performers and there was just no reason why we should not do it again this year. So, it started two evenings ago, with a wonderful ensemble from where Baroque started, namely, Italy. The Hortensia Virtuosa ensemble performed for us on periodinstruments to include Baroque violins and cello, theorbo and our own harpsichord in the Aula Mgr G. Farrugia. The concert was entitled Ostinati and Sonatas of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. The sheer beauty of the sound, the fine musicianship which was evident through every single piece they performed, ranging from the earliest Baroque works by Castello and Falconiero, going on to Uccellini (from whose Violin Sonatas of 1645 the Hortensia Virtuosa got their name) and tapping also the magnificent sources of Corelli – the concert was a huge success.

Equally proficient as soloists, there was, nonetheless, a level of sensitive ensemble playing that moved along seamlessly. The virtuosity on the strings and the keyboard was exuberant but measured, extravagant but controlled, with the technical difficulties overcome without too much of a problem, it seemed!  Particular mention should go to Corelli’s Chaconne and Uccellini’s Sonata detta ‘La Prosperina’. The quiet majesty of Corelli and the totally ravishing Uccellini epitomized the dainty contrapuntal networks that the Baroque is so famous for, without in any impinging allowing the technical architectonic structures to take away anything from the lyricism and beauty of the works.

The second concert by Hortensia Virtuosa Ensemble took place yesterday evening at St George’s Basilica. This time, the group performed Church Sonatas of the late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century and works by Bernardi, Alessandro Scarlatti, Marchitelli, Paisiello, Avitrano and Archangelo Corelli were performed.

Due to the fact that the ensemble needed to use the antique Baroque organ housed in St George’s Basilica and, therefore, they had to perform from the organ loft, a lot was missed from the visual aspect of the concert. This, however, was made up for by the wonderful sound that tumbled down from the organ loft. Given that the works performed were generally of the same dynamic and tonal interest (they were all Sonate da chiesa or movements from the genre), it took sheer ability and intelligent reading of scores to make this another exciting concert.

Interspersed by two delectable organ pieces by Scarlatti and Paisiello, which organist Luigi Lorè performed with mastery, the bulk of the work fell on the two virtuoso violinists, Giovanni Rota and Aki Takahashi. They tackled the frenetic runs and syncopated rhythms with ease and panache and the lovely dialogues between the two were clearly articulated and expressed with finesse.

The theorbo (Giuseppe Petrella) and violoncello (Rebecca Ferri) had the difficult role of the continuo and they both provided a very sound basis on which the melodic interest was carried forward by the violinist. Equally daunting, however, was some of the cello writing, whose embellishments and melismatic runs sometimes equalled that of the violins.

These two concerts presented two facets to Baroque writing in Italy, namely, the secular and the sacred. We feel very lucky that with the instruments we have at St George’s Basilica, together with the venue, we are able to present such high-calibre concerts to our public!