The Malta Independent 14 November 2019, Thursday

Marie Benoit's Diary: A recital full of fizz and bite

Marie Benoît Sunday, 13 October 2019, 10:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

It was Prime Minister Joseph Howard who granted the use of Palazzo de la Salle to the Malta Society of Arts in 1923. I haven't been to any functions there since it was restored and redecorated and I was impressed as I walked up the baroque staircase and admired some of the works of art which are permanently on display.

I was there to enjoy a recital by Gisèle Grima, who never ceases to amaze me with her enthusiasm, energy and dedication to music.

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This was a salon type concert, in a small room of invited guests where not a single seat was empty.

Gisèle is relaxed and confident and now 'with child' as they say, in the Bible. This did not deter her in any way from giving us an entertaining evening.

Alex Vella Gregory, the composer and musician, who also, like Gisèle, benefitted from an Ian Tomlin Scholarship, gave a brief introduction to the evening.

Now Alex may be gifted in many ways but when it comes to dressing, at least that evening, he merits only a low B minus. To turn up on the stage in shorts and sneakers when the pianist was wearing evening dress, is very non-U in my book. Alright, the young (and not so young) want to be cool, but there is a limit even to coolness.

I understand that Alex is trying to prevent further climate change by cycling everywhere, hence the reason for his inappropriate attire. However, he could either have asked someone to replace him or brought along a pair of trousers. I know I am an old prune but we have thrown overboard so much. We need to keep a few rules going.

There were no notes in the programme and Gisèle said a few words about each piece before she played it. This I much prefer to programme notes. There is never enough time - or light - to read programme notes, except after the concert and anyway, speaking to your audience, and not just playing for them, creates a certain bond. 

The recital started with Franz Schubert's Impromptu No 1 in C minor, Op. 90. I find this Impromptu haunting. Gisèle's playing had a touching simplicity about it and was unostentatious.

In his memoirs which contain an extraordinary detailed account of Schubert's physical appearance and temperament, Franz Eckel, the distinguished physician and veterinary surgeon, and a friend of Schubert since their Seminary days wrote: "Even with his close friends he was generally silent and uncommunicative. On the walks which the pupils took together, he usually kept apart, walking with lowered eyes and with his hands behind his back, playing with his fingers (as though on keys). He seemed entirely lost in his own thoughts. I seldom saw him laugh; more frequently I saw him smile, sometimes for no apparent reason, as if it were a reflection of the inner life of the soul.

Schubert's life was one of inner, spiritual thought, and was seldom expressed in words but almost entirely in music."

The centre of gravity of the concert were the Valses poéticos by Enrique Granados, who is known to have been a formidable pianist. He was very talented and wrote poetry and painted with the same mastery as he wrote music. He befriended many modernist Catalan poets of the time, adapting their poems to music. His particular love for this literary genre is shown in the very title of the work which Gisèle played so well that evening.

She performs with gusto and she is not only providing entertaining for her audience but she is visibly enjoying playing.

To me, no instrument other than the piano commands such a thrilling emotional range - but its demands in terms of memory and motor skills are incredibly cruel. Yet, Gisèle seems able to dispatch several demanding pieces without a hint of nerves. This comes of course, not only because she is so well-trained and self confident but also because she knows her music intimately.

Franz Liszt's Sonetto 47 del Petrarca was next on the programme. Liszt composed these three sonetti during his stay in Italy in 1838-9. I learnt that he and Marie d'Agoult read Petrarch and Dante together. I hope they had some good wine to keep them light-hearted.

 These sonetti all started when on Good Friday of 1327, the great fourteenth-century poet Petrarch saw a woman named Laura in the church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon, and his passion for her is celebrated in 366 poems.  Men no longer write all those romantic poems for women. Text messages are the order of the day.

In this sonetto Liszt contrasts between dramatic-operatic outbursts and ecstatic lyricism, he moves from key to key. The piece winds down quietly and reverently. Gisèle provided us with both the verses of Petrarca's Sonetto and Paul Verlaine's poem, Clair de Lune on which Debussy based his famous composition which was next on the programme.

Claire de Lune is part of the popular repertoire and I am sure most of members of the audience have heard it time and again.

I found Gisèle interpretation particularly beautiful.

This was followed by another Debussy composition. Etude No 1 Pour le cinq doigts d'après M. Czerny. Now anyone who has ever had a few piano lessons would be familiar with the dreaded Czerny exercises, so repetitive. All you really want to do when you are young is to be able to play a few popular songs on the piano.

I will not say that this piece made me fall in love with Czerny. He simply isn't my type but I did admire this composition and the pianist who actually chose to put it in her repertoire. There were times when I thought the music was the equivalent of a motorcycle jump across the Grand Canyon.  How brilliant to be able to play that and actually entertain the audience.

Proper music, not the teeny pop type, truly has the power to restore the human spirit.


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