Karl Fiorini (photo, Semih Ökmen)

Friday, June 10, 2022

Grand Master’s Palace, Valletta, Malta

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

This wasn’t so much a concert as a fairy-tale bejewelled among the galleries, state rooms and courtyards of Valletta’s Grand Master’s Palace, built in the sixteenth-century and renovated in the eighteenth, a survivor (mostly) of the Axis destruction rained upon Malta during the Second World War (the Royal Opera House wasn’t so fortunate). The evening had a serious purpose. Funding the preservation of Matteo Perez D’Aleccio’s Great Siege wall paintings commissioned by the Order of St John and executed between 1575 and 1581 – a remarkable series of twelve extant panels documenting in narrative sequence the Siege of 1565 when, Christendom confronting Islam, the Knights Hospitaller repelled the forces of Süleyman the Magnificent (as Vienna had earlier done in 1529). Prior to settling in Peru, D’Aleccio, apprenticed to Michelangelo, was prominent among Mediterranean Catholic circles, working on the Sistine Chapel before coming to Valletta.

Music framed the speeches and presentations. In the Throne Room, surrounded by D’Aleccio’s images of Knights and Ottomans, of a place on a rock nearer Africa than Europe where “people swear in Arabic but pray in church” (Liam Gauci), Clare Ghigo (mezzo-soprano) and Anne Marie Camilleri Podesta (harp) opened with a group of late-Renaissance/early-Baroque songs intrinsically in keeping with the history and ambience of the setting. Frescobaldi’s ‘Se l’aura spira’, Caccini’s ‘Amarilli mia bella’, Purcell’s ‘Music for a while’, and the anonymous French ‘El baxel esta en la playa’ published in 1609. Familiar numbers but beautifully done and elegantly staged, Ghigo bringing a rich dark glow to the music, her liquid voice in an artistically special place these days.

Camilleri Podesta’s interluding, poised and clear, mellifluous of tone and phrasing, was as pleasing as it was unexpected. ‘Two Castanet Dances of the Maltese’, ‘A Mask-Ball Dance of the Maltese’ and ‘A Maltese Jig’ from Edward Jones’s Terpsichore’s Banquet (circa 1813). Extravagantly admired, the Welsh harpist Edward Jones (1752-1824) was bard to George IV. In an age with a mania for ‘national airs’, drawing the likes of Haydn, Pleyel and Beethoven (copiously so), Jones enjoyed something of a field day – despite never visiting the remoter countries of his attention, relying instead on informants, collectors and returning travellers. His Lyric Airs (1804) offered “Specimens of Greek, Albanian, Walachian, Turkish, Arabian, Persian, Chinese, and Moorish National Songs and Melodies (being the first selection of the kind ever yet offered to the public:) to which are added, Basses for the Harp, or Piano-forte”. An 1807 anthology was devoted extensively to “Maltese Melodies; Or National Airs, And Dances, usually performed by the Maltese Musicians at their Carnival & other Festivals”. “Printed for the author, in the Lord Steward’s Court-Yard, near the ball room, St. James’s Palace,” Terpsichore’s Banquet comprised “Select beauties of various national melodies consisting of Spanish, Maltese, Russian, Armenian, Hindostan, English, Swedish, German, French, Swiss, and other favourite airs; most of them never before published”. In 1806 Jones effectively introduced the ‘German Waltz’ to Britain (so charmingly Regent-ified by Sor a decade later). The Maltese/Balkan-related repertory would make an exotically referenced recording, Camilleri Podesta ideally suited to the task.

The tile-floored Tapestry Hall, its walls hung with eighteenth-century French Gobelins, was the backdrop for a 1900 rosewood 88-key Bechstein grand partially restored by Nikolai Vuković around five years ago. Dusty about the tuning pins and soundboard, but an old lady nonetheless of fine complexion and shapely legs, ivories intact. Not to be pushed but caringly touched. Out of the dark, into the spotlight. Karl Fiorini. Garbed in black. To play his Second Sonata. Intense and critical … thoughtful, impassioned … coveting his freedom yet pondering anchorage – what, you wonder, goes on behind those eyes staring long into the distance? – Fiorini, London-trained, Paris-based, cuts a leaner, more haunted figure than formerly. Temperamental on the one hand, tempered on the other. Ever the complex probing cosmopolitan reading the European mind yet now, into his forties, more accepting of locality and the tongue of the streets that reared him.

The new Sonata (2021) was commissioned by Joanna Delia: fancier of exquisite things, petite of frame, Apollonian in vision, epitomising the energised, liberated, free-thinking modern woman, “living life for life’s sake”, making possible what others can only dream about. Like Fiorini’s tripartite First https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKXVhpR5vmg, the Second is in the form of a single Lisztian/Bergian movement about as third again as long (around fifteen minutes), divided into four chapters. There are points of similarity between the two – recurrent motifs (the stabbing figure at the start is germanely important), contrasting sections of agitation and stasis, virtuosity and lyricism, driving rhythms and soaring climaxes, twisted elements of dance – but overall the language seems more clarified and tonally referenced. A drama of minors and majors and pivotal linkage. More pastoralised than fire-branded. To what extent the performance, from memory, was limited by the relative frailty of the Bechstein I can only presume. The premiere, featuring a Steinway B (Malta Society of Arts, 11 June 2021) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U55GBCvr8XI, certainly left an impression of having been dynamically stronger and more boldly characterised in terms of attack, articulation and colour choices. No matter. Retiring when it comes to exposure or interviews, Fiorini rarely makes public appearances. They’re eminently worth seeking out. With a regime of Beethoven Sonatas and Chopin Studies as his practice ground, playing for himself rather than any gathering, it’s the best way to get a sense of the man, the wiry pulse of his nervosity…