At the Grand Master's Palace
~ a Maltese feuilleton ~
Monday 26th, 8 o'clock. April 1841. Chopin gives a semi-private recital at 22 rue de Rochechouart, an elite circle of aristocracy, friends, and pupils awaiting him. 'In two hours of two-handed clapping,' we are told, 'he pocketed six thousand and several hundred francs amidst ovations, encores and the stamping of the most beautiful women in Paris'. Franz Liszt, who the day before had been playing the Emperor with Berlioz, took up his pen, contributing a review to La Gazette Musicale, focusing less on the music, more the glamour, social air and atmosphere of the occasion. 'The salons of Monsieur Pleyel were brilliantly lit; a ceaseless stream of carriages deposited at the foot of the steps, carpeted and decked with fragrant flowers, the most elegant ladies, the most fashionable young men, the most famous artists, the richest financiers, the most illustrious lords, the élite of society - a complete aristocracy of birth, wealth, talent and beauty. An open grand piano was on the platform; crowding around, people vied for the closest seats; composing themselves in anticipation, they would not miss a chord, a note, an intention, a thought of him who was about to sit there ...'
Friday 10th, 7.30. June 2022. In limestone Valletta for a brief forty-eight hours, that long ago soirée, shades of the handsome immoral Liszt not yet thirty, fever and adoration in the air, curiously drugs my mind. I find myself drawn into a fairy tale bejewelled among the galleries, state rooms and courtyards of the Grand Master's Palace, built in the 16th century and renovated in the 18th, a survivor (largely) of the Axis destruction rained upon Malta during the Second World War – the Royal Opera House at the other end of Republic Street wasn't so fortunate. Co-chaired by Joanna Delia (People & Skin, Sliema), Wilfred Kenely (CEO, Research, Innovation and Development Trust [RIDT], University of Malta) and Sarah-Lee Zammit (NoċeMuskata, Valletta), academics from the University's Department of Conservation and Built Heritage and Heritage Malta in support, the evening has 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 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 reaching Valletta.
images: Semih Ökmen, Mitchell Camilleri
Peopling the marble stairs, gracing the long, high-ceiling corridors guarded by suits of silent armour, laughter and wine never far away, radiance and society is on display. Dresses of silk and satin. Boots of black, waistcoats of red. A throat-clasping, pearl-adorned white creation that might have come out of Anna Karenina or St Petersburg 1905, worn by a young Muscovite of balletic allure, every toss of the wrist a speaking arabesque. Luke Azzopardi's voluminously challenging black għonnella, kissing the mosaics, sweeping the stepped streets beyond, time-warping us to another age. A kaleidoscope of nationalities and cultures. Maltese, Danish, Albanian, French, Turkish, colonial British, Faroese, Italian, Sicilian, Irish, Russian. Hot ... sea wind … a waxing gibbous moon sailing the sky.
Music frames 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) open 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, Clare Ghigo bringing a rich dark glow to the music, her liquid voice in an artistically special place these days.
Anne Marie Camilleri Podesta, Clare Ghigo
Anne Marie Camilleri Podesta's interluding, mellifluous of tone and phrasing, proves as pleasing as it is 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: Malta became a British Crown Colony on July 23rd that year, Samuel Taylor Coleridge having been Acting Public Secretary, 1804-05, with an office in what's now the Casino Maltese, steps away from the Palace.) 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.
'A thought of him who was about to sit there ...' Leaving the wooden floored Throne Room for the tile-laid Tapestry Hall, its walls hung with 18th century French Gobelins, to be greeted by a 1900 rosewood 88-key Bechstein grand, partially restored by Nikolai Vuković around five years ago. Dusty about the tuning pins and soundboard, nonetheless an old lady of fine complexion and shapely legs, ivories intact. Not to be pushed but caringly touched. Audience standing. Out of the dark, into the spotlight. Karl Fiorini. Garbed in black. To play his Second Sonata, premiered last year (11 June 2021) at the Malta Society of Arts ♫. Intense and critical … thoughtful, impassioned … coveting his freedom yet pondering anchorage – what, you wonder, goes on behind those eyes staring long into the distance? - he 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 tongues of the streets that reared him. Only the night before, the weathered blood-lines of centuries about him, he'd been drinking and taking finger food outside the allusive Spurs supporters' club in Frederick Street, followed by champagne and glitter at the Phoenicia, before propping up the Offbeat music bar at the bottom of Merchant Street for a spot of intimate midnight jazz with Mariele Zammit in that suggestively interactive half-smile mood of hers that's so beguiling.
Fancier of thought-provoking things, celebrant of the new, petite of frame, Apollonian in vision, Joanna epitomises the energised, liberated, free-thinking modern woman, 'living life for life’s sake'. Doctor, aesthetic physician, vocal women’s rights activist, mother, influencer, entrepreneur, patron of the arts, with a brain as sharp as a Saracen dagger, and a flair for writing, description and dialogue that seduces one into the page. 'There is something exquisitely bohemian about her,' it's been said, 'from her dark, flowing tresses to her perfect, oval face, highly reminiscent of a magnificent, fiery gypsy' 1. 'Art,' she argues, 'is a language, which speaks to you on so many levels. It is not a pretty thing, that’s hung on a wall for decoration, it is constantly delivering a message acting as a catalyst for discussion, exploration and discovery … when I find something which I really like, then it becomes an obsession … I feel strongly about supporting our living artists, because if they don’t create art, our generation will have nothing to leave for posterity and we will consequently become irrelevant … art is an ongoing exploration of ways to express emotion as well as the human condition and identity.' With her glass-floored house and roof terrace overlooking the Grand Harbour, an open bottle of prosecco on the table, limited edition books for the reading and giving, welcoming friends all hours, Joanna is Valletta's rampant, fiercely independent power-hub, working late, partying late, doing not saying, making possible what others can only dream about.
'There is no doubt that if anything has characterised - and is still characterising - our composer, who is still in the midst of dazzling youth despite his already long career, it is due to his farsightedness and his need for freedom - Ana Bocanegra Briasco 2. Like Karl's tripartite 2017 Sonata ('an engrossing wordless narrative, stylistically accessible yet elusively mysterious' 3) ♫, the Second, commissioned by Joanna and about as third again as long (around fifteen minutes), is cast in the form of a single Lisztian/Bergian movement divided into four chapters. There are points of similarity between the two – recurrent motifs (the stabbing figure at the start is germinally important), contrasting sections of agitation and stasis, virtuosity and lyricism, driving rhythms and soaring climaxes, twisted elements of dance – but overall the language of the new work seems more clarified and tonally identifiable. A drama of minors and majors and pivotal linkage. More pastoralised than firebranded. To what extent this performance, from memory, is limited by the relative frailty of the Bechstein I can only presume. The premiere, involving a Steinway B, certainly left the impression of being dynamically stronger and more boldly characterised in terms of attack, articulation and colour choices. No matter. Retiring when it comes to exposure or interviews, Karl 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 …
Reception among the lamps, fronds and shadows, memories re-kindled, new ones made. Soldiers in fatigues manning the great door. St. George's Square. To Babel around the corner, drink, cigarillos and love entanglements tensioning the intellectual discourse, loosening emotional inhibitions. Long night. Dawn. Home on the afternoon flight.
29 June 2022
1 Giselle Scicluna, EBM Magazine, Gżira 26 February 2019.
2 Métier/Divine Art, 2013. Métier/Divine Art
3 Michael Schulman, The Whole Note, Toronto 21 April 2022.