Photo by Marija Grech

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

An annual feature of Karl Fiorini’s festivals is a platform showcasing rising young musicians from around the Maltese Islands. Four well-attended free lunchtime concerts this year (Palazzo de la Salle, Malta Society of Arts) plus two evening slots (Teatru Manoel), with performers drawn largely from the Malta School of Music established in 1975 and based in Hamrun. Enjoying accessibly mainstream programming, contrasting the hard-core ‘adult’ thrust of the Festival proper, most professionally promising were those events featuring singers, as well as a resonant, virtuoso display by the School’s Percussion Ensemble opening the closing concert (April 23). Rather as Alessandra Reiner had demonstrated two nights previously in her Muse and Madness participation [] this was percussion-playing as an elegant, inspiring art form – tightly disciplined and trained by Joseph ‘Bibi’ Camilleri Jr. Maria Blanco, Head of the School, had reason to be gratified.

Among the singers Georg Zammit, Angelo Muscat and James Agius (April 20), presented by Andriana Yodanova, aspired now and again to those echelons of Maltese operatic fervour (a long tradition) best represented in recent times by Joseph Calleja. Muscat especially impressed, a believable, communicative tenor. Two sopranos presented by Miriam Cauchi (April 22) – Gabrielle Portelli and Mariah Costa – engaged in their different ways, the former for her soubrette manner and acting skills, the latter with her darker-toned voice. Their ‘Cat Duet’ attributed to Rossini suitably charmed, spat, clawed and fawned. Doing accompanying duty were the School’s Maria-Elena Farrugia (22nd) and Sofia Narmania (20th), Manchester and Moscow trained respectively: a feast of refined pianism, not a slur or dot out of place, timed to perfection, the Society of Arts’ Steinway rather better and more immediate than the Teatru Manoel’s larger, older model.

Best among sundry instrumentalists was Matthew Zammit, violin, presented by the veteran Antoine Frendo (23rd). Secure in his bowing and intonation, he has a confident platform manner and makes agreeable chamber music. But as yet his tone and projection is small. And refusing to make more of his accompaniment passages, effectively dropping out of the texture, puzzled: the ‘great’ violinists do differently. In an over-long contribution, his Beethoven ‘Spring’ Sonata pleased, but his Mendelsohn F-major added little. Partnering, Narmania couldn’t be faulted, both in technique and tact. Karol Zammit, Matthew’s brother, presented by Yvette Grixti, has facility but seemed in something of a terse black-and-white mood (Mendelssohn’s E-minor Prelude and Fugue, Beethoven’s ‘Tempest’ Sonata), inclining to rush his fences, and not allowing enough air for the music to breathe. Of three Rachmaninov Preludes, his D-major glimpsed expressivity but his B-flat and G-minor suggested a dose of comparative listening would do no harm – beginning with Richter in the former and Gilels in the latter. Neither Rachel Napoli, piano, nor Nikolai Matvei Mifsud, saxophone (21st, presented respectively by Marco Rivoltini and Joseph Vella) seemed entirely at home on the stage. But she offered a musical Chopin A-flat Nouvelles étude, and he negotiated some classic French test-pieces with agility if unsmilingly. “Autism is part of who I am but it doesn’t define me”, “When words are not an option … music speaks”: taught and mentored by Gabi Sultana, Alessia Bonnici (Teatru Manoel, 22nd) fascinated – scarcely pedalled, staccato fingers to the fore, her Scarlatti (Sonata Kk27) and Paul R. Harvey encore (Rumba Toccata) winning applause and a bouquet.

Rounding off the Festival’s youth element was a Masterclass by Charlene Farrugia (Malta Society of Arts, 23rd), her gentle yet firm directives focussing on positives. The need to shape and phrase contours, to observe what’s on the page, as much as the fact that playing the piano is about coordinating hands and feet, were points well made.