111 XIII 36

Tension and Repose

Brian Schembri Pianist 


Brian Schembri, the Soviet-trained Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, is an extraordinary pianist, as commanding, personally impassioned and fluent at the keyboard as he is on the podium. During the 80s he studied in Kiev with Alexander Snegiriov (a pupil of Shatskes and Nikolaeva), and then at the Moscow Conservatoire under Dorensky (a Ginzburg disciple) – refining his technique and crafting his art in the toughest training arena of the 20th century. Those were heady days, post-Shostakovich, when, musically speaking, Gilels and Richter, Mravinsky and Svetlanov, Temirkanov and Rozhdestvensky were the imperious high-command of all that the Kremlin ruled over. Young Westerners commonly won scholarships to study for a year or two. Locked into the Russian system, Schembri from Malta, exceptionally, stayed for eight. 

As conductor (he studied with Roman Kofman and Rozhdestvensky) and pianist, Schembri is a natural structuralist. His way of holding a piece together, his shaping and masking of a composer's joins, his generation of dramatic tension and repose, his attention to climaxes and cadences, reminds me of passed greats, of other worlds, other times. He gets to the roots of a piece, he eschews gratuitous gesture. At the piano his world is about colour and nuance, urgency offset by repose. Thinking German, articulating Russian, emoting Latin, ever the compassionate man, his chemistry is at once distinctive, a striking Dionysian/Apollonian fusion of heart and reason, as yielding or leading as the moment desires. His canvas is big. He paints landscapes not miniatures, his brush-strokes addressing essentially the broad span of a subject - though not without diamonds of detail to light the way.

BVX/1: Schembri's only piano disc. He recorded it in Paris in October 2003, at the Église évangélique Saint-Marcel, an acoustically reverberent Lutheran church close to Port-Royal in the 5th arrondissement. Featuring a mid-generation Fazioli 278 of epic depth and tone built in 1997 (0649), the programme is not for the faint-hearted. Nor is it the work of a mono-stylist: Beethoven C minor to Rachmaninov via kleine Schubert in A pre-supposes a certain complexity of personality and empathy. In the event Schembri forges a volcanic experience from start to finish. The musicianship is magnificent, the pianism arresting, the recorded sound monumentally physical. One doesn't come across rampant spirit like this every day. Nor so many pages of reflective tenderness and sensuality.

Schembri's 111 [28:01] isn't polite Beethoven. You won't find late-period obsequies here, nor hallowed treading, nor early Broadwood courtesy, but, rather, a hands-on encounter as purposeful in thrust as the calligraphy of the autograph, as confrontationally black and white as the minor/major, allegro/adagio, sonata/variation trajectory of the music. The dissonances and consonances parade before us in one long climactic drama; the bass trills, surging arpeggiated growls, tutti exclamations and hurtling scales smoulder and explode with Strombolian fire; the stratospheric trills and demisequavers of the second movement glitter like so many catherine-wheels; the opening diminished-seventh motif of the first becomes a fist-shaking ‘air of other planets’ no-man's land - defiant, enigmatic, unapologetic. Orchestrally, aspects of this approach remind me randomly of conductors like Skrowaczewski (yesterday) or Laurence Equilbey (today). Pianistically, of Backhaus or Yudina. Arrau occasionally. A confessed Beethovenian since childhood, brought up on Thomas Mann, Schembri leaves us in no doubt of his fervour and dedication, never for a moment allowing the music to fossilise for want of electric charge.

The booklet-notes (his own) wryly third-person fragments of autobiography to place repertory. 'Many octaves, exams, concerts and Beethoven sonatas later [the Emperor was still to come], the boy finally decided to become a musician. So the first thing he did was to miss all his science lectures at college. He opted for a more artistic way of life, learning how to play snooker and darts at the central student club [the timeworn Mozart/Tony Drago road]. He never excelled, being short-sighted enough to miss the green ball on the far side of the enormous billiard table, but with music, the thick glasses and, of course, the first attempts at a longish hairstyle, he was honoured by fellow club mates with the nickname of Schubert. Maybe his surname had something to do with it.' The A major D 664 [24:43] - seducingly Viennese, deceptively simple, notoriously difficult to hold together – is given a reading emphasising lyricism before mechanicals. An urbane first movement; an intense andante (arguably the emotional zenith of this album); an 'orchestrated', brisker than customary, finale. ‘He roamed the streets and the fields, and we know in what moods,’ Richard Capell once wrote famously of Schubert the song-writer. ‘He wondered at the stars, he blushed when he caught a girl’s glance, he sank into rich melancholy at the sound of the bell that told the death of an hour, and at the sight of the sunset that marked off a lost day from the tale of days which, with the best will in the world, he, being young, could not but believe to be unending.’ Of Schubert the instrumentalist it is harder to say such things because he left neither clues nor programmes – beyond believing that music offered ‘godlike’ insights into the ‘frail and human world’. There are no poets on hand to lend words to his notes. Yet feelings, echoes and images, Schumann’s ‘bright todays and dark tomorrows penetrating the spiritual recesses’, there most tangibly are, filling ‘the soul,’ as Mendelssohn was to claim of his own experience, ‘with a thousand things better than words’. Schembri, knowing, feeling such things, deploys a Sofronitzky-like arsenal of articulations, voicings and nuances of attack, timing and amplitude to fashion a dolcissimo embroidery of associations - a vocally orientated yet tough sonata dynamic subliminally varied and renewed at each listening.

For Rachmaninov's 1913 Second Sonata [19:54] - the dream and angst of winter hours in the former Rome apartment of Tchaikovsky's brother - Schembri favours the 'reduced', re-focussed, selectively re-composed/re-tonalised 1931 revision. He lives and loves the myriad angles of its Slavonic world, chiselling, distilling and stratifying its variation and fantasy into a Rodinesque sculpture of sinew and shadow. He gives us alabastrine authority: the opening veloce declamation, one of the unforgettably plunging iron-clad volleys of the Golden Age. He wings us the refrain and rubato of lyrical sighs and the ending of days: 'the pines of the Monte Pincio gilded by the setting sun'. He commands us to ride bareback through the whole epic cauldron that was Rachmaninov the composer-pianist-conductor at the pinnacle of his creative powers: guardian noble of old Russia, the soul, the mirror of his motherland's might and splendour no less than her pessimism and melancholy. Listening to the fever and facility of Schembri's playing, his intimate understanding of style, syntax and scena, Natalia Satz's words on first hearing Rachmaninov come to mind. 'Like some mysterious current [the sounds he made] picked me up and carried me away - everyday objects disappeared and there was nothing left but the music around me and in me […] I opened the door a little ... There he was, tall and straight, with his stony face, only his fingers moving, his hands huge, soft and strong. He only had to give the orders, and they could do anything - sing in the sweetest voice, ignite a star or destroy an enemy. Yes, they could do absolutely anything, these miraculous hands! How curious, he was so greyish-yellow, so dry, so angular, but his hands were young and gentle, quite different from the rest of him! [...] perhaps he only pretended to be so wooden, not to let people guess how wonderful he was. But when he played there was no hiding it [...] now softly and sweetly, now as powerfully as enormous bells'.

with thanks to Catherine Tabone - who will know why

© Ateş Orga 2015

not to be reproduced without permission