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Contemporary Colours - New Music by Maltese Composers
Euchar GRAVINA (b.1994)
Three Pieces for Orchestra and pre-recorded sounds (13.46)
Waiting (2017) [6.33]
Christopher MUSCAT
Mesogeios (1996) [9.39]
Véronique VELLA (b.1964)
Fine Line (2007) [6.35]
Alexander Vella GREGORY (b.1984)
Wind (2016) [14.48]
Albert GARZIA (b.1977)
Xamm (Scent) (2019) [6.42]
Malta Philharmonic Orchestra/Sergey Smbatyan
rec. January 28-31 2020, Robert Samut Hall, Floriana, Malta

How many composers from Malta can you name? It’s only a very small island but its musical life packs a punch, as I know from a couple of visits.

Perhaps you have encountered Charles Camilleri (1931-2009) much of whose music was once recorded and whose three Piano Concertos may still be obtainable on a CD made by Unicorn Kanchana (DKP9150), and when I was last on the island, I bought a disc of John Galea’s (b.1960) vast Ggantija, the name of a Neolithic temple on the next-door island of Gozo. Are there any more? Well, this fine CD introduces us to six new, all mainly young, composers who are here being given a chance to have an orchestral work recorded by their island orchestra.

We start well with a unique sounding work, Three pieces for Orchestra and pre-recorded sounds by Euchar Gravina, who has incorporated and manipulated electroacoustic sounds within a live ensemble in other works. Fascinatingly, it’s not always possible to know in this piece when one ends and another begins. Such textures and timbres have been attempted by many composers in the last fifty years but Gravina, it seems to me, has been especially successful here. The first movement is almost entirety uneventful and tranquil, until a major central climax powered by timpani. The short central movement is cataclysmic in its complex density and strength, but its antithesis follows with a magical movement of identical length to the first using sounds, which I feel were created mainly by vibraphone, even temple bells, until it reaches into its own satanic climax. It’s just a pity that the recording does not allow the incredibly prescient silences, particularly in the first movement, to be felt as profoundly as they should.

Mariella Cassar-Cordina originally scored her Waiting for string quartet but enlarged and developed it further in this string orchestra version. She has a special, creative interest in electro-acoustic music teaching and lecturing back at her home at the University of Malta, having trained at Plymouth University. Waiting is a ternary form piece with just a brief quicker and lighter section as its central point. Either side is music of almost static beauty, waiting, as it were, for something to happen but beginning, as it does, with a long sustained, ethereal chord - quite fascinating.

A good look at the globe will show you that Malta is rather at the crossroads of so many civilisations and so many influences. Mesogeios (the ancient Greek word for the Mediterranean), by Christopher Muscat is an extraordinary, if not unique, work. During a trip for a conference in Egypt in 1996, the composer notated several melodies and collected them together in this work, scoring them not only for strings but also for the Zummara (a double reed pipe) in the opening section, and the Zaqq, (a Maltese bagpipe) which can be heard later, alongside vigorous clapping. There is much use of percussion and the rhythms are earthy and exciting, almost medieval. There is also a strong African tribal influence, which, in the last of the five sections, mixes with Greek melodies. Again, fascinating.

I much enjoyed the musical fantasy world summoned up by Véronique Vella in her Fine Line premiered in Glasgow in 2009. It has an ambiance of Impressionism and Romanticism mixed with the fresh, open, everything-audible kind of orchestration I associate with Douglas Lilburn. Its inspiration lies in a novel by Arthur Golden, ‘Memoires of a Geisha’, about a character working in Japan during the Second World War. I was sorry it was so short.

Alexander Vella Gregory composed Wind as part of his Valletta Symphony. The CD cover is a portrait of one of the steep stairways which lead to Valletta’s harbour. Perhaps the title should be ‘winds’ because Malta is an island which knows all about the effect of winds from any direction, as I discovered when working there in mid-winter a few years ago. The titles for this piece are in Maltese but fortunately translated for us in the booklet. It is in five sections including ‘A hot southerly from the landward side at noon’ and ‘A sweet breeze over the Grand Harbour at dawn’ - and if you are thinking ‘Impressionism’ here, you would be right. Right from the start, there are touches of Debussy and the whole tone scale, and of Vaughan-Williams and modality, but the whole is personal and beautiful. The slightly boxy recording does not come to the rescue of the rather exposed chamber orchestra in the middle movement, however, which is entitled ‘A violent autumn storm’.

The disc ends with a work, which contrasts a powerful rhythmic flow with a central section of quiet lyrical beauty, that is Xamm (Scent) by Albert Garzia, who started his musical training as an accordionist. This work formed part of a ballet based around a novel called ‘Perfume: The story of a murderer’. Originally scored for string quartet and electronics, it shines in this guise and is colourfully orchestrated, holding your attention without outstaying its welcome.

It is quite an achievement for an island with a population of fewer than 500,000 to have so many talented and diverse composers and performers, and it’s refreshing and enjoyable to hear some small fragment of their collective work highlighted on this disc. As indicated, the orchestra is clearly not top-notch and the recording not entirely ideal but the whole project is of outstanding interest, worthy of its place on your shelf, not least because its slim cardboard casing and useful booklet notes will take up just a very small space.
Gary Higginson

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