Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Teatru Manoel, Valletta

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

As provocative recitals go this was an Everest of an occasion, a pianist of sovereign authority at the helm, not an emotion, sonority or creative strand misplaced. Key works by Khachaturian and Karl Fiorini book-ended proceedings – the former’s Seven Recitatives and Fugues (1928-29 rev. 1966-70), the latter’s riveting eleven-minute First Sonata (2017), repertory Charlene Farrugia released last year on the Grand Piano label (GP834, GP880 respectively).

Rhythm, regular and irregular, was Khachaturian’s engine. Melody was his soul, ‘speaking’ ornament his monogram and caprice. “Under Mikhail Gnessin [in Moscow] I composed seven Fugues for piano, which must have been far from perfect … viewing them with the eyes of a mature musician after the lapse of more than four decades, I have rewritten some of them while noting with gratification that many contain intonations [melismata and cadences not least] I have been partial to all my life”. Descended from the leaner side of Bach, Khachaturian’s paraphrastic essays – polarised around D, C, D, G, C, E-flat, F – hover between modes major, minor, Dorian and Aeolian, facets of all four constructs meeting in the codas of II and V. The substitution of lyrically narrative Recitatives for figurative preludes, yielding a freely inventive harvest, places the collection in a genre largely its own. Responsible for programming their first UK (European even?) performance during London’s MusicArmenia fest in August 1978, I have a fondness for them.

Compatriots abroad, Farrugia and Fiorini met in London in 2007. “At the time,” she says, “he was working intensely on seeking new musical paths overcoming academicism. I was quickly immersed within his novel ideas. Our artistic partnership has since evolved and deepened from time spent between Malta and Venice, moving on to Brussels, Paris and Vienna, and over the years we’ve developed a lasting, great friendship. Interpreting Fiorini’s music has been a particularly effective personal journey. Technically, intellectually, spiritually, his First Sonata is enormously difficult – a work where virtuosity and physical facility is not merely a question of speed or dexterity but a means towards the realisation of sound and the absolute control of its release.” In many ways she’s the Muse to his Apollonian/Dionysian persona. Musical confidants, both share musical values and ideals. Both understand each other. Cyclic and concentrated, the First Sonata, he suggests, “shifts unmistakably Eastwards”. Less the Orient as Teutonic worlds East of Paris. Liszt’s Weimar, Berg’s Vienna, Bartók’s Budapest, Feinberg’s Moscow. Precipitously difficult, massively gestured, of a coloring, textural layering and sonic density intrinsically orchestral, three joined chapters – fast/slow/fast – comprise its single-movement continuum. Cross-referenced motifs, contoured relationships, taut development, rhythmic metabolism, repetition and reprise determine its profile. The ‘fine pen’ style of the central colonnade is pensively concerned with plains of lissom catharsis. The ‘finale’ is mettlesome, rampant battle chargers racing the glory moments.*

Producing Farrugia’s albums – the Fiorini, part of a conspectus of his piano and chamber works, In the Midst of Things, in the Konzerthaus Vienna, the Khachaturian in Henry Wood Hall London – was, given the medium, an inevitably piecemeal process, technical complexities and studio constraints largely dictating our timetable. What this recital offered, invaluably, was a chance to experience the music globally, sequenced in its natural order, to trace organic strands of growth and familial cells, to witness evolving, involving, currents of electricity climax in volcanic flame – by the close of the Fiorini, contrasting Khachaturian, blazing unstoppably upwards.

Farrugia is a pianist who paces and frames a composition. Nothing is hurried into. Her touch is never crude, her heaviest percussive moments (the bass-end ‘cannon’ shots of Fiorini’s first movement, for instance) cloaked in velvet trim, hard sounds metamorphosed into deep resonances. She voiced the polyphony and majesty of Khachaturian’s Fugues with elegance and liquid grace, the Caucasian songs of the Recitatives floated like so many memories on the wind. Given that sustaining line and architecture is one of her strengths, the pathos she brought to Fiorini’s ‘slow movement’, more deliberated than the way he himself plays it, was especially revelatory, each pitch and pattern chiseled and caressed, every rumination given its time and space to speak.

In between Khachaturian and Fiorini lurked Iannis Xenakis’s aphoristic 1987 À r. (Hommage à Ravel) – one of several pieces in this year’s Malta Spring Festival marking the centenary of the composer’s birth. “Contrary to a somewhat widely held opinion, Xenakis’s forms have nothing narrative about them … They are simply there, like steep cliffs made out of heterogeneous blocks of stone” (Makis Solomos). This chilly night, a Mediterranean storm rolling in, the music oddly befitted the local landscape – a visionary re-creation in Farrugia’s hands. Her view of Crumb’s seven-movement Little Suite for Christmas, AD 1979 (1980), a work she learnt in student days at the Royal Academy of Music, was about some of the most finely graded diamond-cut pianissimo-perfect playing one is ever likely to hear. Inspired by Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Crumb employs a delicate palette of resources, timbres, dynamics and playing means, occidental/oriental, plucked strings and hands seductively brushing the bass register to evoke dusky horizons of mystic, astral wonderment. If some of Farrugia’s gaps and silences seemed too long, they weren’t. The score is specific to the last second. Such was the pianism and focus, the feather-sculpted intensity, mesmerizing the room, you could hear a pin drop.

For an encore one of Fiorini’s clever pastiches, loosely returning the audience to faintly familiar realms if with a teasing question mark. A special evening.

*The score is available from United Music Publishing Ltd

Charlene Farrugia talks about Karl Fiorini, August 2019