Living up to the nightly challenge that is Malta's International Spring Orchestra Festival – its artistic director, Karl Fiorini, is defiantly proud that his innovative programming does not “give the crowd what it wishes for”, that he will “never go mainstream” – this recital boldly combined the defining, ever-brilliant, two-piano-and-percussion classic of the twentieth-century, Bartók’s Sonata, with a pair of new French works for the same combination.
Dominique Lièvre, born 1961, studied with Antoine Duhamel and Dominique Lecerf, benefitting further from an encounter with Messiaen. Active as a composer since the early-1980s, involved in literature, theatre and contemporary dance, he's drawn to colour and primitivism. Minimal with words, his output ranges from opera to fancifully-titled symphonic and ensemble pieces. “Perception of musical time is probably the door I most love to open”, he says. “Beyond that door my ear sees huge virgin spaces which comfort my idea that tomorrow is already here! Like a boat sailing calmly, twelve looks to the west, a last the east!”. A Festival commission, l'Ombre bleu (The Blue Shadow) is a journey between states of consciousness – from carbon to hydrogen, density to subtlety. It draws its inspiration from Utterance 606 of the Egyptian Pyramid Texts from Saqqara, the necropolis of Memphis, dating from around 3000 BCE. “Go to this boat of Ra [of the noonday sun] wherein the gods wish to ascend, wherein the gods wish to descend, wherein Ra is rowed to the horizon. Nut [mother of the stars, goddess of the sky] shall embark within it, like Ra. Sit on this throne of Ra so that you may command the gods because you are in truth Ra born of Nut, she who like him is every day reborn!”.
To what extent the two halves – ‘Plutôt Clanique’, ‘Plutôt Ethéré’ – follow this extra-mural theme isn't immediately obvious. Lièvre's soundworld floats between fragments of timbre, attack and registers, shards of rhythm and sonority blurring into a succession of sensations, some triggering associations, others seeking more mysteriously, soporifically, within. Instrumentally, he thinks with clarity and Gallic precision, dynamics and delicate balances to the fore. Unpitched vocal interjections, refined and largely hushed, bring an unexpected dimension to the percussion department.
Roland Conil, born 1950, studied in Avignon and the Geneva Conservatoire. Predominantly a pianist, improviser and chamber-music player, he came to public composition late, in 2000, crediting the influence of Maurice Ohana and Les Percussions de Strasbourg. A tripartite structure, Moïrai (2017) conjures the three Fates of Greek mythology – beldames as old as time, deliverers of good and evil, weaving, measuring and cutting the mother thread of life at the birth of each new man. Plato's Republic tells us that Clotho (the Spinner) sings of the things that were; Lachesis (the Repairer, Drawer of Lots) of the things which are; and Atropos (the Unturnable) of the things that shall be. As with Lièvre's score, the lines between inspiration and actuality are hazy. But Conil's rhythmic vitality, and the physicality of his imagination, make for an immediate impression, his colouristic preferences – from percussion writing to hammered piano strings to plucked ones (flamboyantly flourished in this performance) – emphasising bold rather than muted tones.
The Bartók, written just before the Second World War, poses a different set of demands, not least motivic discussion and architectural perseverance. Between them, Roland Conil (piano I) and Véronique Muzy (piano II, a former student in Vienna of Oleg Maisenberg) proved to have the measure of the music, intellectually and technically, delighting in its visceral quality and making the most of the many details of articulation and dynamic. Pedalling was sparse, lucidity at a premium. In the middle movement, the ensemble as a whole painted a scene of complex murmurs and shades. Once or twice the tension sagged at page-turns, but generally the momentum was keenly directional. Two reservations. The tuning of timpani and xylophone relative to the pianos needed attention. And the timpani, somewhat muffled, needed greater focus: harder sticks would have helped with definition and bite. Reversing Bartók's prescribed stage layout, the keyboards facing outwards rather than inwards, seemed an odd decision – but the engagement and compatibility of the players wasn't compromised.