About this Recording
8.573373 - CAMILLERI, C.: Piano Concerto No. 1, "Mediterranean" / Accordion Concerto / Malta Suite (Farrugia, Božac, Malta Philharmonic, Vaupotić)

Charles Camilleri (1931–2009)
Piano Concerto No. 1 ‘Mediterranean’ • Accordion Concerto • Malta Suite


Charles Camilleri was born in Hamrun, Malta, in 1931. He showed early promise as an accordionist and pianist and started composing at the age of eleven. By the end of his teens he had written a number of compositions inspired by Maltese traditional music and, particularly, by the local style of folk singing known as għana. When Camilleri was eighteen, he emigrated to Australia and eventually moved to London where he earned his living as a successful light-music arranger, performer, composer and conductor, assisting Sir Malcolm Arnold on the Oscar-winning soundtrack of The Bridge on the River Kwai. In 1958 Camilleri left London for New York and then Canada, where he studied composition whilst working as resident conductor for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He would eventually describe these “electrifying” years as amongst the most exciting of his life. They certainly gave him the confidence to dedicate himself to composition, which he did on his return to London in 1965. The following years brought him ever-increasing critical acclaim and prestigious collaborations. 1977 saw Camilleri’s appointment as Professor of Composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto. Camilleri also gave lectures at Buffalo State University, a hotbed of musical modernism, where he met experimental composers such as Carter, Feldman and Cage. Their influence took root in a number of works of this period including the Organ Concerto (1981).

Camilleri could not, however, resist the call of his beloved Malta and in 1983 it became his permanent home. The return to his roots led to a flowering of inspiration. In 1984 he completed an opera written in Maltese—Il-Weghda—which was followed in the subsequent year by the oratorio Pawlu ta’ Malta. He also composed another full-length opera (The Maltese Cross) and oratorio (Dun Ġorġ) as well as several concertos, music theatre pieces and other vocal, choral, orchestral and instrumental works. One of his very last works, the New Idea Symphony, was posthumously given its premiere in Brussels in January 2009.

It is not easy to categorise the output of a composer as complex and prolific as Camilleri. If pressed to do so, one could distinguish three overlapping phases. The earliest may be referred to as “nationalistic” and is typified by an attempt to marry traditional Maltese and Mediterranean folk-tunes and dances to “art music”, much as Bartók, de Falla and Vaughan Williams had done with the music of their respective countries. This period produced some of Camilleri’s most endearing and enduring works.

Camilleri soon directed his attention to the culture of a wider geographical area. During what has been described as his “Afro-Arabic-Hindu phase” he explored the intricate rhythms and improvisatory aspects of North-African and Middle Eastern music in such compositions as the Second Piano Concerto ‘Maqam’ (1970) and the Piano Trio (1972). This led him to develop the concept of the “atomisation of the beat”—“a universal type of rhythm made up of small, apparently unconnected, units … the universal rhythm which in its turn forms part of an even greater rhythm, the rhythm of the universe.” Camilleri also became highly interested in the writings of the Jesuit theologian and scientist Teilhard de Chardin. This found expression in the organ masterpieces Missa Mundi and Morphogenesis as well as in compositions for other media, including Cosmic Visions for 42 strings (1976) and Noospheres for piano (1977).

The final phase in Camilleri’s output has been referred to as “universal”, since it merges the seemingly disparate facets and concerns of his earlier works into a cohesive whole. This incessant traveller had completed his most impressive journey—that which led him from the songs of a small Mediterranean island to a “cosmic language” of universal relevance.

The works on this disc date from early in Camilleri’s career. Indeed, the Piano Concerto No. 1 ‘Mediterranean’ is probably his first mature large-scale composition. Its original version was written in 1948, although the composer revised and re-orchestrated it thirty years later. It is this latter version of the piece which is more often performed.

Camilleri attributed the genesis of the concerto to a visit to London where he attended a Promenade Concert. “There, for the first time I heard a live professional orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, performing under Malcolm Sargent. That evening so fired my imagination that not only did I decide to commit myself to music but went straight into composing a large scale Piano Concerto.”

The work is cast in a traditional three-movement fast-slow-fast structure. It owes much to the epic Romantic concerto tradition but fuses into this familiar language musical elements drawn from Southern Europe and North Africa. A distinctive flavour is given, for instance, by the modal and chromatic inflexions of the music (despite the work being nominally in G minor) and the use of striking rhythms, by turns elaborate and disarmingly simple. The opening movement of the concerto contrasts a linear and agile first theme with an expansive and lyrical second idea redolent of Rachmaninov. The central Adagio, heralded by an unaccompanied horn recitative, is the emotional core of the piece. The piano weaves intricate improvisatory arabesques over a languid accompaniment, evoking the image of folk guitarists playing on a balmy summer night. The concerto ends with a sprightly rondo which, driven by a recurring tarantella, builds up to a rousing close.

In the 1950s and 1960s Camilleri was widely respected as an accordion virtuoso and pedagogue. Besides performing internationally, he published an accordion method and recorded a solo LP. During this time he composed several pieces for himself and his pupils to perform, amongst which the most substantial is the Concerto for Accordion and String Orchestra. Rather surprisingly, the concerto lay forgotten for two decades until leading Canadian accordionist Joseph Macerollo, its original dedicatee and one-time Camilleri student, decided to record it.

The work is in three movements. The opening Andante moderato follows a classical sonata-form structure and could be mistaken for a lost eighteenth-century concerto, were it not for the unusual solo instrument and the fact that the main subject sounds suspiciously like a Maltese traditional melody. The slow movement starts with an extended dirge-like accordion solo in C minor, the chordal harmonies suggesting the sound of a church organ, before the strings join in creating a warm aural halo. A dissonant fortissimo chord dispels the rapt, prayerful atmosphere and announces the final Allegro vivace—a manic atonal toccata based on a dodecaphonic theme which, stylistically, propels the concerto into the twentieth century. Camilleri’s sense of humour was well known and this exhilarating finale, so different from the preceding movements, must have been written with a twinkle in the composer’s eye. It could also have been a foretaste of the more experimental idioms Camilleri would soon be exploring.

There are no modernist surprises in the Malta Suite, in which the composer takes a number of recognisable Maltese folk-tunes and reworks them into a set of colourful orchestral dances. Rather ironically for what has become the most popular and regularly performed of Camilleri’s works, there is some uncertainty as to when exactly it was composed. It appears that the Suite had its premiere in the early sixties when the composer was living in Canada. Camilleri himself, however, claimed that he had written it in 1946 during a holiday on the island of Gozo. He once observed how at that time he was already much in love with għana, whose melodic contours permeate the work. The Suite expresses a youthful exuberance, whilst displaying a precocious command of orchestration. Each of its four movements presents a vignette of village life, culminating in a raucous depiction of the festa—the yearly celebrations in honour of the village patron saint which, up to this day, remain a central event in most Maltese localities.

Camilleri’s early nationalistic works, including the Malta Suite, were vital creations for a composer seeking a personal voice, and were received enthusiastically by a newly independent state which was also, in its own way, in search of an identity. The composer would be proud to learn that a recording of the Suite’s second movement—the Waltz—is aired daily in one of the main squares of Valletta, the capital city, as a musical emblem of Malta and its traditions.

Dr Joseph Camilleri

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