Charlie Siem, violin soloist,
Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, dir. Brian Schembri
Manoel Theatre

It was hot, humid and stuffy and a rainstorm was to break out when it was over. Still, it was an experience not to be missed. The Manoel’s concert season opened with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Brian Schembri, who without much ado launched into the overture to Beethoven’s Egmont.

Direct, incisive and powerful, it was a mixture of no-nonsense urgency tempered with a very human tenderness in parts. The overall feeling and message one got was one of admiration, of courage and anger and in the end triumphal defiance no matter what the consequences. It was music which could not have come across so vividly and clearly were it not for the solid teamwork between director and orchestra. It augured well for the rest of the evening.

This continued with the appearance on stage of young British-Norwegian violinist Charlie Siem. Looking cool, polished and as suave as they come, these were also traits he displayed in his performance of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor. Thankfully he also had the deep heart and soul required to make the music sing, in a great romantic combination of drama, passion and tenderness.

There was utter rapport all around; whether with the violin leading or the orchestra having its powerful say here and there. One just wished it would never end. In particular I doubt whether that adagio could have been more exquisite than it actually was. An interesting point is that the orchestra was led by Carmine Lauri, no mean violinist himself and who had performed the same concerto standing in that same space. It reminded me that this evening’s performance was very similar in achievement and excitement.

Siem came back at the beginning of the second half of the concert with a concert showpiece. This was the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28 by Camille Saint-Saëns. It is a typically well-crafted concert piece by the prolific French composer who on a sound Gallic base flavoured this work with Spanish touches.

The mainly reflective introduction contrasted highly with the fiery rondo capriccioso which was full of a well-manoeuvred avoiding of dangerous pitfalls which the composer mischievously laid across the violinist’s path. Dangers only a skilled and very well-prepared performer like Siem could deal with.

As it had begun with Beethoven so did it end: with the Symphony No. 8, in F, Op. 93. He loved his Kleine Achte and so do I: for 20 years its opening bars opened and closed my radio programme. I am very fond of it, and woe betide whoever messes with it.

There was no fear of that with Schembri who is a noted, uncompromising Beethovenian and it is so exhilarating to see him at work anyway but in Beethoven in particular. The overriding energy of the opening movement carried all before it and in contrast came a dose of mischief in the allegretto scherzando.

The menuetto becomes grand when Beethoven handles it and it was no less here.

As could also be heard and felt in the concluding allegro vivace, here was a mix of crisply controlled precision yet one with an expansive flexibility that created that feel-good sensation.

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