Originally an offspring of the service orchestra in the employ of the island's British Naval Commander-in-Chief, the Malta Philharmonic was founded in 1968. A change of management structure last season brought on board Brian Schembri as Principal Conductor and Artistic Director – a decisive appointment given his experience and extended years of training as a pianist and conductor in the former Soviet Union (studying with Dorensky and Rozhdestvensky among others). Schembri served his apprenticeship under Michel Plasson and Emmanuel Krivine. He's an eloquent thinking musician, a tough disciplinarian, a man on a mission. He challenges himself, sets high but humanly realistic standards, and puts his players, a largely Maltese/European mix, on the spot. At best, witness a temperature-raising ‘Eroica’ back in May, the results can be as convincing as any, grounded, as he puts it, in “all we love and fight for in life, on personal, collective and professional levels.”
In its programming and passion, with a heart bigger than their modest numbers might suggest (strings at 12, 10, 8, 6, 4), the MPO impresses as a motivated force of refreshing honesty and commitment, keen – notwithstanding a demanding, eclectic schedule, long rehearsals, and often debilitating working conditions (the 600-seater Teatru Manoel, built in the early 1730s, lacks air-conditioning) – to make music rather than merely go through the motions. At the top of their game, all cylinders firing, these musicians know how to rise to the occasion.
And, as the MPO’s education, training and outreach initiatives show – an Orchestral Academy, the Malta Youth Orchestra, masterclasses, internships – it us not content to rest with the status quo. Knowing there is work to be done, young in spirit and energy, this is a competitive, developing band with an eye on the now and the future. The feel-good factor is high.
The opening concert of the new Season showcased Schembri the cultured symphonist. The core repertory from the Viennese classics to Sibelius and the Russians has been a heroic hunting ground for him, his diverse pantheon of influences – Celibidache, Toscanini, Mravinsky, Mengelberg, Furtwängler – adding to the mix. One of his strengths is architectural clarity. Another is his flexibility: his pacing of tempo and pulse in the long term shows a sophisticated understanding of rubato as a structural and expressive tool. Yet another is his concern with tone and balance. Equally the need for his musicians to let their instruments breathe life into silence rather than audience white noise: stopping the Brahms one-bar-in at the second concert may have seemed extreme to some, but, in the interests of the precise nuances he was seeking, the notion of sound out of nothing, the seriousness of the world he was inviting us to share, it was perfectly justified.
All music, even (sometimes especially) the simplest, has its traps. Brahms's Second Symphony is often seen as a work of pastoral geniality, with a pair of 'intermezzo' movements, and a Finale where tempo and brass can be encouraged into the red. Schembri favours a more gravity-laden approach, weighty but not pedantic, emphasising the work's Beethovenian ancestry (his Fourth Symphony in particular). Taking the first-movement exposition repeat established a tidal undercurrent of structural, dramatic and psychological parameters arguably only ultimately calmed and resolved at the very end of the work where tempo and orchestra were held in an iron grip, the music blazing in noble circles and cathartic fanfares liberated of bombast. At every turn Schembri's journey was about the larger span rather than localised detail (though there was never a lack of the latter, his designer chording in particular setting a high target). Emotionally, the long-breathed pacing and climaxes of the B-major Adagio weaved a distinctive tapestry of images and shadows, the power to suggest at a premium. Here was a slow movement of poetically nuanced waters, free of the mud-flats of low tide. One of the strengths of the MPO is its woodwind section, a charismatic collective whose lyric solos and fading phrase-offs are essentially about claret delivery and seductive murmurs: in the third-movement Allegretto these players had their moment.
Based in Paris, Sergei Nakariakov has long been a phenomenon of the trumpet world. Cutting a cool, lean figure in black, a gaunt thespian economic in gesture to the point of stillness, his cut-glass playing, breath control and technical arsenal is stratospheric. Reminiscent of Timofei Dokshizer, nothing is impossible. Nakariakov’s legato is about chains of notes transformed into feathers of sound dancing on a sunset wind; his tonguing is about staccatos and scales electrified into so many raining bullets, each as icy, glittering and graded as the other. Good taste, resisting cheap effects, arching cadences, rhythmic exactitude, minimum expenditure of energy, are priorities that matter to him.
Getting his Antoine Courtois to sing as sweetly as a violin romance, to snarl with the savagery of a battle-cry, to speak with the subtle inflections of the human voice, epitomises the Nakariakov experience. He carried off his flugelhorn transcription of the for-cello Rococo Variations (using Fitzenhagen’s version) – a useful addition to the brass repertoire – with relaxed conviction. Similarly Carnival of Venice by Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Arban (1825-89) – steered comfortably wide of the vulgar through a variety of attacks, colours and tempo adjustments that elevated the solo line some way beyond the otherwise mundane, riskily ordinary, orchestration of the accompaniment. Saturday's performance, in the presence of the Maltese President, marginally had the edge over Friday's sell-out.