There’s a palpable feeling of excitement in Malta. It’s been six years since the announcement was made that Valletta, Malta’s capital, would be the 2018 European Capital of Culture and as the artistic festivities commence, the islanders are keen to emphasise their pride at the title, as well as the benefits that it brings. As the archipelago’s only professional orchestra, the Malta Philharmonic will play a substantial part in the cultural events. The MPO, born out of the ashes of the Commander-in-Chief Orchestra (an ensemble tied to the British Navy which was disbanded in 1968), has been growing at a relaxed pace. Although very clearly an institution on the islands, its international reputation at present is slim with low profile tours and recordings under its belt, but that profile looks set to increase over the next few years. For this concert, musicians from the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra reinforced the MPO and, as the orchestra develops, it should be able to increase its size to take on heavier works without needing to call on external forces.

Lawrence Renes conducts the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra © Ken Scicluna
Lawrence Renes conducts the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra
© Ken Scicluna

The concert was titled ‘A Hero’s Life’ and unsurprisingly, Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben was the centrepiece, preceded by Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in F sharp minor. It’s a solid combination; the boyish exuberance of the young Russian composer, determined to switch from performing music to writing it, and the valiant tones of Strauss’ semi-autobiographical work, written at a high point in his career. For the Rachmaninov, Dutch-Maltese conductor Lawrence Renes was joined on the stage of the Mediterranean Conference Centre (formerly the Sacra Infermeria, the 16th-century hospital) by Inese Klotina, a pianist unfamiliar to London audiences. From the outset it was clear that the balance between orchestra and soloist was extremely carefully judged; Renes was almost solicitous in softening the orchestral sound to match Klotina, giving greater prominence to her lucidity of tone.

It was not, perhaps, an interpretation that captured the youthful swagger of the composer so much as his maturity; spaces between notes filled with meaning, the boisterous energy tempered somewhat by a more ruminative interpretation. Accuracy of touch and definition in its delivery made the Andante particularly interesting, the phrasing cool and expressive, and the sustained ending was handled well. The first barrage from the piano at the start of the third movement was spot on, though a slight jauntiness was missed as the movement progressed. The orchestral performance was solid: a bright, even brass opening at the start of the Vivace, dark string tones and clarity of sounds within the section and a strong violin solo, though a slight thinness in the bassoon playing in the Andante was noticeable. 

Inese Klotina and the Malta Philharmonic © Ken Scicluna
Inese Klotina and the Malta Philharmonic
© Ken Scicluna

Debate ranged on the identity of the hero of Ein Heldenleben. Publicly disavowing any direct autobiographical association, Strauss is nonetheless have said to have modestly remarked that his life was just as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander’s, while of course acknowledging his wife as the subject of the third movement, “The Hero’s Companion”. This was a national première for the MPO and their first performance of a major Strauss work; on the whole, the players rose admirably to the challenge. One would imagine that minor issues with intonation and cohesion between the sections will be ironed out as familiarity with the composer grows, but there was clear freshness to the performance that comes from a first encounter with a composer.

Renes brought both a sense of scope to his interpretation and an eye for individual detail, with lively dynamics and an impetus that felt driven by the narrative force of the piece. There was a strong thorniness to the woodwind in the second movement, a flavour of malice that brought to life the Hero’s adversaries (in Strauss’ case, his critics), the acidic tone an ideal fit. Carmine Lauri (London readers will recognise him as the LSO’s co-leader) gave a strong solo in “The Hero’s Companion”, fluid and amber-toned, depicting the complexities of Pauline Strauss and dispatching the trickier moments with deft flair. Salty brass contributions, particularly from the tubas, were forceful and coloured, though at times a little more roundness of tone would have been welcome. On the whole it was a worthy performance by an orchestra clearly enthusiastic about Strauss; a fine way to begin the MPO’s contribution to Valletta’s cultural celebrations.

 

Dominic's press trip to Malta was sponsored by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra