At home in Malta
By CATHARINE MORRIS
One of the many things I didn’t know about Malta until a fortnight ago, when I joined the audiences of its second International Baroque Festival, is that to English ears a Maltese accent can sound strikingly Welsh. Among the first local people I heard speak at length was Kenneth Zammit Tabona, the Festival’s director (who is also one of Malta’s most popular painters, one with a vaguely Beryl Cook-esque charm), and I imagined that he had spent time in the Valleys, perhaps . . . . But later I noticed a similar lilt in the voice of our tour guide Mariella.
I wonder what accounts for the similarity – coincidence, I suppose; I’m guessing not British rule (from the 1800s until 1964), though that period is very much in evidence – in red telephone boxes, three-pin plugs, driving on the left-hand side, names and, above all, the use of English, which remains an official language. Signs are in English, and almost everyone speaks it. (And in Malta’s capital city Valletta, you’ll see Marks and Spencer, Peacocks and Accessorize – no wonder the British expat community feels at home . . . .)
It’s almost difficult to reconcile such – for some of us – homely touches with Malta’s more distant past: Malta may be small (a fellow Londoner compared it fondly with the Isle of Wight; and I happened to meet a retired teacher who had taught both the Prime Minister of Malta and the Leader of the Opposition), but it is certainly rich in cultural history: its rulers have been Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine and Arab, and on the island of Gozo (twenty-five minutes from Malta by ferry), you can visit what is thought to be one of the oldest free-standing structures in the world – a clover-shaped temple built around 3,400 BC. You can walk inside it – almost unaccompanied, if you go in winter – and contemplate its sacrificial altars. By the entrance you’ll see the spherical stones on which the limestone walls were transported, looking as if they were left there last month, or the month before.
A defining moment for Malta came with the Great Siege of 1565, and the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem (described with some colour in this TLS review of Malta of the Knights in 1929) have been central to its development ever since. Having chosen Valletta – named after the Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette – as their stronghold, they set about building their city in a sumptuous baroque style. St John’s Co-Cathedral (home to two Caravaggios, one of them the huge altarpiece the "Beheading of St John the Baptist") was built between 1573 and 1577 and later decorated by Mattia Preti. Preti was to Valletta, Zammit Tabona told us, what Bernini was to Rome.
“We were in the EU before the EU was invented”, Zammit Tabona went on to say: the Knights came from all over Europe, and each of the cathedral's chapels is dedicated to a different nation. He called St John’s “a repository of our history – it is our Vatican, our Westminster Abbey. We love it passionately . . . . The big concert had to be there”. The big concert was Bach’s B Minor Mass performed by the English Concert and conducted by Harry Bicket. I was among the 1,000 people who gathered for it, and the sense of occasion was as enjoyable as the music.
St John’s is one of a number of churches used as concert venues, but at the festival’s heart is the elegant and intimate Teatru Manoel, built at the personal expense of Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena in 1731. There we heard the Brandenburg Concertos performed by Concerto Köln, who were using not only newly crafted reproductions of baroque flutes (which had a somewhat placid, enclosed sound) but also the pitch used at the court of the Margrave of Brandenburg – a semitone lower than that used by most baroque orchestras and a full tone lower than that used by modern ones.
It was a rather different atmosphere from that I had experienced in the same theatre a couple of days before, when I heard Hippolyte et Aricie ou la belle-mère amoureuse, a puppet parody of the Rameau opera. It was beautifully staged (see picture, top) and performed by musicians and singers from the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles (CMBV) and Teatru Manoel, and it was as winningly silly as the genre suggests: La belle-mère was definitely amoureuse, there was no doubt about that, as she wrestled Hippolyte to the floor. One of the arias was addressed to a passing chicken, who warmed to the role of confidante, if all that clucking was anything to go by . . . .
The English Concert conducted by Harry Bicket, St John's Co-Cathedral, below; and Concerto Köln performing at Teatru Manoel