As Malta basked in a Mediterranean spring, its resident orchestra filled Valletta’s concert hall with warmth of another stripe, namely two leonine masterpieces of the Romantic repertoire. The pairing of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the Violin Concerto of Brahms felt conspicuously like a calling card from an orchestra that sees itself as a contender for wider recognition, on this showing with good reason. If the management is saying ‘See how good we are’, then job done. There was a panache to the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra’s playing that shrugged off the sonic limitations of its barn-like base, a multi-function venue that’s a million miles from the purpose-built auditoriums that most capital cities are able to take for granted.

Guy Braunstein
© Boaz Arad

Acoustic panels helped project a good aural glow but were not enough to accommodate each instrument’s individuality, and the sound that emerged from the Mediterranean Conference Centre’s proscenium arch stage was congested in climactic passages. This is no reflection on the instrumentalists, roughly 50% of whom are home-grown and a credit to the orchestra’s training academy and youth orchestra. There was no weak desk anywhere and some individual players, for example the sensitive timpanist Marios Mouzakitis, were world class.

That said, there was a cautiousness, almost a wariness, to the performances of both works under Greek conductor Michalis Economou. He and his players seemed so anxious to show the acoustic who’s boss that they forgot to let rip at moments that demanded it. The Mahler in particular felt cramped, in need of air. The opening subject progressed from the famous allusion to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (recast by Mahler as a trumpet call for the dead) into a lyrical outpouring of orchestral cream that had neither subtext nor tension. There was no lilt to the music and few colours in the string sound, beautifully coalesced though it was.

The complex movements fared best, with passages of accomplished virtuosity in the stormy second and, outstandingly, from principal horn Etienne Cutajar in the ensuing Scherzo. Economou proved himself a safe pair of hands in these and went on to shape Mahler’s exacting finale with masterly brio.

Wagner’s Rienzi Overture had been announced to open proceedings but it was dropped late in the day (I understand in order to reduce the duration of an admittedly lengthy concert) and we went straight into Brahms. Musically this made sense, for the concerto’s three-minute introductory tutti is something of an overture in its own right. Curiously, though, Economou treated this passage to a reading so sluggish that it fell to his soloist to inject some brio once he joined the fray. Happily, the admirable Guy Braunstein has a masterly command of this 45-minute repertoire monster and he delivered a performance of aching, lyrical yearning. The oboe introduction to the second movement was oddly phrased by conductor yet sweetly played by John McDonough, another orchestral hero, while the finale was both allegro and giocoso in its rousing affirmation.

The Israel-born Braunstein exuded personality and proved a generous collaborator in the concerto, yet his cheeky finale, a caprice-like piece of showboating that he himself carved from the husk of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no. 6, afforded him a thoroughly deserved solo moment in the limelight. The audience cheered him to the echo – for how could they not?

Mark's press trip to Valletta was funded by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra.