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A dazzling and colourful show of Saint-Saëns

Concert
Brigitte Engerer, piano Malta Philharmonic Orchestra/director Michael Laus
Manoel Theatre

French pianist Brigitte Engerer’s performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Fifth and last piano concerto (the Egyptian, in F, Opus 103) dazzled all who saw and heard her tackle this extravagantly exotic and difficult work.

Written by a great piano virtuoso, it places great demands upon the soloist, demands which the benign-looking, matronly lady met to the full.

Her playing was the right mix of technical prowess, interpretative evocation and musicality of the highest order. She was in full rapport with conductor and orchestra, the latter doing their part very well indeed. Nothing seemed to lack, everything fit into place so well.

With her distant Maltese-Tunisian connections, Ms Engerer made a resounding return to her roots, making this unforgettable performance one of the highlights of this season and surely one that will long be remembered.

It could be that Arabic and other exotic musical influences in the concerto struck a note of affinity with the soloist. It made one wonder whether it was sheer coincidence, that what was probably this concerto’s first performance in Malta fell upon the 90th anniversary of Saint-Saëns’s death in Algiers.

Ms Engerer’s praises were sung by highly-experienced pianists in the audience, connoisseurs of all age groups and casual concertgoers who have a natural inclination to appreciate and enjoy good music.

She is also a great communicator and won over the audience very early in her performance. She proved to be tenderly sensitive as well as a determined, steely whirlwind virtuoso performer. She was also very generous with encores, performing no less than three short piano pieces: Liszt transcriptions, respectively of a Russian song The Nightingale, and Schubert’s Die Litanei followed by Rakhmaninov’s Italian Polka.

It was a pity that a concert of this calibre was not better attended. One wonders where were all those music teachers and their hundreds, perhaps thousands of students, even a fraction of whom could have filled up the theatre.

Not just where the piano is concerned, because all would have much to learn and to appreciate when a well-prepared symphonic orchestra prepares such an enjoyable concert, with a pianist of international repute. The concert got off on a good start with the well-paced and finely orchestrated overture to Cherubini’s operatic failure Anacréon, the only part of this work which is still remembered and with good reason. The entire second half of the concert was devoted to a very accomplished reading of Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony. Certainly a long work, with many repeated passages; nearly always with slightly subtle differences. Yet nothing sounds superfluous about it.

The melodic element is overwhelmingly beautiful, as are also the magnificently sweeping aspects of the outer movements, the sometimes haunting slow movement and the playful scherzo. It was a very balanced performance and left many with a great sense of exhilaration as it did with this writer.

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