The Malta Philharmonic's final concert of the season was an end-of-term jamboree showcasing some of its key personnel. The two-and-a-half hour programme, cleverly planned, opened and closed conventionally enough, the Rossini and Ravel sharing in their side-drum starts and crescendo theatre. But the trio of Concertos played with fire – so recklessly, you'd have thought, that if they'd been put on in London, anywhere, most audiences would have stayed at home. Battling the heat of the night and the Maltese festa season in full swing, not to mention Ronaldo and European football on the box, the house was pretty much full.
Edward Gregson's Trombone Concerto (1979), in three sections played without a break, works well on all fronts, its content and structure cogently presented and argued. Roderick Bugeja impressed for the quality of his tone, variety of attack and articulation, and wide dynamic range. He caught the wider filmic and American plainsman nuances of the music expressively. And the cadenza showed quietly confident authority.
Compositionally patchy, Nino Rota's quirky Divertimento concertante (1968-73), written for Franco Petracchi, is essentially scissors-and-paste music: the Prokofiev-like second-movement ‘Marcia’ grew out of double-bass scale exercises, while the ‘Aria’ third resources a theme intended for David Lean's Doctor Zhivago, a score aborted when Rota withdrew to be replaced by Maurice Jarre. With its humour, Mozartean parody and moments of Paganini pastiche/quotation/caricature (First Violin Concerto, Caprice No.24), this isn't the easiest of works to bring off. The best of possible advocates for his instrument, Gjorgji Cincievski, who completed his training at the Royal Northern College of Music, is an extrovert musician and an erudite researcher. Despite, arguably, some reticence at the start (I would have liked more rhetorical drama), his mastery of Rota's writing – not least the two cadenzas and several tricky harmonics (glassily focussed) – was never in question, while the ‘Aria’ (“a slow march of Russian exiles heading towards Siberia at night”, the composer maintained, “the unfolding of dawn”) found him both intimately confiding and poetically expansive. The beauty-and-the-beast exchanges with piccolo in the second and fourth movements made for infectious banter.
Commissioned by Leopold Stokowski, Gian Carlo Menotti's Triple Concerto (1968) inhabits a different, more structured creative world – elegant, crafted, poised. Contrasting the spiky neo-baroque (Stravinsky's Pulcinella in the first movement, the opening fugato of the Finale) and the yieldingly romantic (Mascagni, shades of Puccini, tinting the central Lento), bridging lithe chamber textures and orchestral ripienos, the work places good taste and uncontrived accessibility at a premium. Staged with oboe, clarinet and bassoon behind violin, viola and cello to the left of the rostrum, and harp, piano (lid off) and percussion to the right, the performance glittered with bright timbres, crisp entries, and spontaneous conversazione. The dialogue between harp and piano particularly appealed, likewise the woodwind handovers in the Finale.
Brian Schembri, the Paris-based principal conductor and artistic director of the Malta Philharmonic, ensured responsibly prepared, sensitively responsive support. In the Rossini, detail and discipline was robust – a scintillating reading poised on a knife-edge (he and the MPO should record an album of Latin overtures). The most striking dimension of Boléro was the hypnotic steadiness of the side-drum rhythm and the finely attuned balance between solos and accompaniment, each entry, straight or bent, encouraged to breathe to maximum effect. This was a highly coloured reading, as much stressing differences between instruments as within sections, no more so than at the very start where first and second flutes (Rebecca Hall, Fiorella Camilleri) were given free rein to exploit rather than blend their individual tonal identities.
Schembri speaks of the Malta Philharmonic as “a collective of strong and different personalities, all engaged towards the enhancement of life through passionate music making” – something rewardingly in evidence throughout the evening.