The eleventh edition of Karl Fiorini's International Spring Orchestra Festival, “From Zappa to Beethoven”, among the more creatively imagined of Malta's current crop of festa initiatives, offers audiences something refreshingly different. A time-proven formula may lie in the planning – the familiar sugaring the unfamiliar, windows of new light set into old walls – but the overview is finely judged, the repertory neither routinely chosen nor gratuitously imposed. We are invited to enjoy but also to discover and reflect, to make unexpected connections, to journey dreams and forgotten places.
This early-evening concert, in Valletta's elaborately beautiful 16th-century Our Lady of Victory Church – where images, acoustic and intimacy are designed to inspire and enlighten – set the bar high, phenomenally high. Fielding a balanced string force – 188.8.131.52.1, cellos and double bass opposite violins, violas in the middle – the Russian Virtuosi of Europe, London-based, are an extraordinary band of artists, superbly co-ordinated, richly responsive in their blending yet characterfully personal when needed.
I cannot envisage (have rarely heard) a more perfectly produced Elgar Serenade. Here was finesse and strength, a wonderfully corporate feeling for articulation, dynamics, hairpins, cadences, and the long sweeping phrase. Playing the room, the violas spun dark veils of sound, the cellos and bass explored infrasonic depths of emotion and colour, the violins soared, giving a new dimension to dolce. The unanimity, the overtone delicacy of the final chord, that most whispered of farewells, was extraordinary, an ethereal divinity: one voice, one breath.
Schoenberg's 1899 Richard Dehmel-inspired Verklärte Nacht, in the original sextet version, scaled the apparently impossible – technically, musically, spiritually. It amounted to a chamber masterclass of the most remarkable order. Crystalline clarity, glorious texturing, ceaseless long lines, rushes of climax, deliriums of aftermath – the intensity and angst of the experience, the sense that the audience was at one with the players, living each moment with them, electrified an encounter where everything on the page, foreground and within, was before us, each note carrying meaning yet delivered without pretension or invasive accent. Shades of Brahms, Wagner’s Tristan, anticipations of Sibelius, Richard Strauss, brooding minors, wanderlust chromatics, cathartic majors, grand tutti flight, feathered close, Natalia Lomeiko fragrantly, delicately murmuring the way, made for the kind of super-charged, knife-edge soundtrack that reminded of a Petr Weigl film – trembling images, woods, moonlight, rustlings, restlessness, human searching, a devotion of endings and beginnings, confession, forgiveness and embrace, graves and cradles.
Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, the 'white key' signature piece of the Russian Virtuosi, lived up to expectations, Yuri Zhislin and his musicians crafting a performance that spanned all horizons – from grandiose rhetoric and organistic chords to balalaikas in the field. The rhythmic bite, the impeccably disciplined follow-through and exchanges of lines, the full-throated colouring, pursued a symphonic trajectory. But there was plenty of song, too, some heart-stopping exquisite rubato, a thrown-away kiss or two, and more than a touch of aristocratic élan, the strings bowed deep as much as caressed. It was the sort of elevated body language, no-holds-barred 'Russian Soul' performance Svetlanov liked to give – but with just twelve players – and fabulous to witness.