Feature Review – International Spring Orchestra Festival, Malta – Gottlieb Wallisch, Ameraldi Piano Trio [webcast]

Gottlieb Wallisch (piano)
Ameraldi Piano Trio

Please see review for details

Reviewed by: Ateş Orga

Reviewed: 22 April, 2020
Venue: Please see text for venues and performance dates

This week’s fourteenth edition of Karl Fiorini’s specialist International Spring Orchestra Festival in Valletta – “Muss Es Sein? Es Muss Sein! Must It Be? It Must Be!” – was intended to have been a Beethoven 250 celebration interleaved with new commissions, masterclasses, and a street-theatre production of Fidelio. Covid-19 and lockdown has seen to its demise. But, thankfully, not its disappearance, the organisers having had the presence of mind to salvage at least something for online streaming. ”It Must Be!” All power to them.

Gottlieb Wallisch (Friday April 17) is a pianist of impeccable credentials and clarity, an Austrian with an ingrained, infallible grasp of the Viennese classical style. His revised solos (omitting the originally programmed Mozart and Beethoven piano/woodwind Quintets with the Wiener Akademie Soloists) could not be faulted. Here was Mozart (Fantasy in C-minor, K475), Haydn (F-minor Variations) and Beethoven (Fantasy in G-minor, Opus 77) that plumbed connoisseur depths of modern pianism and classically contemplated insight. Grandiose Mozart, projected like some dark, new piece haunting forgotten rooms. Ruminative double-division Haydn, beautifully paced and breathed. Quixotic, improvisatory Beethoven given structure and personality – an extraordinary potpourri out of which Wallisch crafted an encounter inhabiting a time-shifting 1808 world of fragments, figurations and fermatas, visceral runs and figuratively familiar cadenzas, the whole coming to rest and clarification in a long B-major Variation chapter prophetic of the late Sonatas. A masterly interpretation, registrally coloured, no two scales alike. Pre-recorded in Berlin’s Teldex Studio, acoustically and spatially appealing, with a classy Steinway D and varied camera angles, this was a sophisticated venture – as perfectly, professionally produced a piano half-hour as I can remember.

Like Wallisch, the members of the Ameraldi Piano Trio – Rachel Kisacanin (violin), Diane Lambert (cello) and Alex Stukalenko (Sunday April 19) – were to have appeared at the eighteenth-century Teatru Manoel. The drier, relatively confined Musikschule Küsnacht in Zürich provided a domesticated static camera alternative, visually and atmospherically on the bland side but meeting the needs of social distancing.

Central to their programme was the premiere of Diana Burrell’s ten-minute Frieze, commissioned by the International Spring Orchestra Festival and inspired by Klimt’s 1902 Beethoven Frieze created for the fourteenth Vienna Secession. In three linked sections, the first, the composer tells us, is predominantly “serene and simple, gradually brightening and intensifying”. The second ”is full of unsettled and rough music”, transformed in the third into ”sounds of warmth and lyricism representing the fulfilment of that archetypal journey through darkness into light.”

Paraphrasing, homaging, translating Klimt’s labels – ‘Longing for Happiness’, ‘The Hostile Forces’, ‘Pure joy, pure happiness, pure love’ – is both incentive and challenge. Burrell opens with a piano preface taking a Beethovenian/Mahlerian falling fourth as starting point. Paragraphs of sharply contrasted disposition ensue, now lyrical, now attacking, occasionally static in demeanour, detached blocks of icy piano texture (with hand-brushed lower string glissandos at the end) opposing violin and cello interjections and repeated tremolandos. Acerbic gesture, a cool distancing of voice, is the predominant expressive language, even in the ”joy, happiness, love” resonances of the closing section – pages which, on first listening, impact less sensually than severely, curiously detached in aftermath, (sounding) strings in one space, (silent) piano in another.

With Beethoven in life-coursing E-flat mood – the impulsive ‘unpowdered’ first (Opus 1/1) and symphonic last-but-one of his Trios (Opus 70/2) – the Ameraldi, a Franco-Russian group based in Zürich, offered readings promisingly upfront and physical. True, tempo and ensemble wasn’t always consistent or rounded, not everyone agreeing on the best way forward in Opus 1/1, and with Beethoven’s nastier corners (both Finales especially) stretching nerve-ends. Nor was the tuning of the piano ideal. This said, there was still plenty to stimulate, the best passages gelling naturally, Diane Lambert gauging the pathos and balance of the introduction to Opus 70/2, and its second movement exchanges, with particular sensitivity.

On the day Rachel Kisacanin, formerly a student of Yuri Zhislin and Raphaël Oleg, proved the leader of the pack. Countering Alex Stukalenko’s variably impetuous tendencies, she’s temperamentally a characterful artist communicating a serioso sense of sweep and climax, rising to the occasion. Even when they could be, these were rarely smiling performances. But, come the end, the hewn honesty of music-making, three players aspiring to meet Beethoven on his own uncompromising terms, struck a chord, gruffly spirited. A sense of mountain peaks reached whatever the scree slopes below was strong. That and the capacity to engage with the energy of a composer thinking big from the outset, structurally, developmentally and durationally, in a medium otherwise largely under-valued, bypassed even, in the 1790s/1800s. At half-an-hour their Opus 1/1 got me reflecting how, comparatively, Haydn’s Bartolozzi Trios, Mozart’s final three too, clock in at barely twenty minutes each – lissom flat racers to the Grand Mogul’s muscled steeplechasers.

Wallisch’s recital and Burrell’s Frieze are available in high-definition on YouTube. Next year’s International Spring Orchestra Festival is scheduled for April 9-17.

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