The concert programme for the 2017 Malta International Music Festival runs for ten days, from 21st to 30th April. But there is no question as to which is the star draw: on Saturday 29th, Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov will be performing in Malta for the first time.

The word “legend” gets bandied around all too much, but Sokolov is one musician for whom you can’t complain about its use. His career has been long and distinguished; for most of its length, reviews have described him as “one of the world’s great pianists”. Audiences today veer between reverence and ecstasy, described on this pages as “drawn to mystique like moths to a flame” and “musical pilgrims”. The most casual of listens to his Youtube clips will confirm what the fuss is about, his playing as inventive as it is technically masterful and immaculately balanced.

Grigory Sokolov © Mary Slepkova | DG
Grigory Sokolov
© Mary Slepkova | DG

For certain, “Grisha” is one of the world’s musical perfectionists. As he has got older, he has become more focused: 60 recitals a year, no concerto performances, no studio recordings and a near-paranoid attention to detail of the setup of his instrument: the Festival have dutifully engaged Angelo Fabbrini, one of the world’s top piano technicians, to do the honours, while we can hope that they have been similarly attentive to finding van drivers who can negotiate the vertiginous streets leading to the 16th-century Republic Hall, overlooking the Grand Harbour at the tip of Valletta. By the way, if you’re in the UK or the US, don’t consider waiting for Sokolov to come and play in your countries: visa standoffs don’t look like ending any time soon.

This year’s festival is focused on the piano and in any company other than Sokolov’s, the opening concert on Friday 21st would be the must-see event, with another distinguished pianist from the former Soviet Union: Sergei Babayan performs a wide ranging programme including Pärt, Liszt, Bach, Chopin and Rachmaninov (as well as for his own playing, Babayan is currently notable as the teacher of Daniil Trifonov). The programme also includes works by contemporary composers Vladimir Ryabov and Alexey Shor, one of the festival’s three Maltese composers-in-residence.

Canadian/Polish pianist Jan Lisiecki plays the Chopin Concerto with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra on April 22nd: although just 21 years old, Lisiecki has recently impressed us with his “youthful freshness” and “remarkable maturity”. Other pianists feature in the festival’s “Rising Stars” concerts: Natalia Sokolovskaya, Daria Tschaikowskaja and Andrey Gugnin, who also features in the festival’s closing gala on Sunday 30th, again with the Malta Philharmonic. 

Sergei Babayan
Sergei Babayan

For a further view of the pianistic future, head for the closing concert of the festival’s piano competition, which features prizes of up to €20,000 and four age groups ranging from the “under 10 years” to the 18-35s. (If you're an aspiring concert pianist, of course, you may want to give it a try). Along with several of the chamber concerts, the competition closing concert is at the festival’s other main venue, the Robert Samut Hall, a neo-gothic former Methodist Church in Valletta’s Floriana district.

Prior to the start of the concert programme, the festival features a series of piano master classes given over nine days from April 12th to 20th by five top international teachers: these include Valery Piasetsky, director of the Central Music School at the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory and Yoheved Kaplinsky, artistic director of the Juilliard Pre-College Division. The master classes are open to both “Active participants”, who take part in lessons and workshop concerts, and “Passive participants”, who gain entrance only.

Although the focus is on the piano, the festival isn’t just about recitals; three of the concerts are orchestral; two are chamber, and two concerts on April 25th and 26th feature violist David Aaron Carpenter.

There’s no question that the Sokolov concert alone is worth the trip to Valletta. But there’s plenty more music to tempt you to the balmy springtime temperatures, and expect to see more activity as Valletta builds up to its 2018 status as European Capital of Culture.


This preview was sponsored by Malta International Music Festival