Art of the Mandolin (CD review)

Music of Vivaldi, Beethoven, Bruce, Sollima, Scarlatti, Ben-Haim, and Henze. Avi Avital, mandolin; Alon Sariel, mandolin; Sean Shibe, guitar; Anneleen Lenaerts, harp; Ophira Zakai, theorbo; Patrick Sepec, cello; Yizhar Karshon, harpsichord; Venice Baroque Orchestra. DG 00289 483 8534.

By John J. Puccio

Israeli mandolinist Avi Avital (b. 1978) made his debut album some years ago on the Naxos label and has since followed it up with several more albums for DG, including this one, called simply Art of the Mandolin, and featuring music by Vivaldi, Beethoven, Bruce, Sollima, Scarlatti, Ben-Haim, and Henze. Although Avital’s speciality may be music of the Baroque period, the selections on the present album span everything from the Baroque era to the present.

As I said of Avital in an earlier review, he “is unquestionably a fine mandolin player, his tone sweet and fluid, his tempos well judged, neither too breakneck fast nor too maddeningly slack, and his natural affinity for the instrument always in evidence in his intonation and flexibility.” Certainly, the same can be said about his playing this time around as well.

The mandolin, if you’re not quite sure about it, is a stringed musical instrument in the lute family, usually plucked with a small piece of plastic, metal, or ivory. It commonly has four adjacent rows of doubled metal strings tuned in unison (8 strings), although five (10 strings) and six (12 strings) versions are also popular. Mandolins developed from the lute family of instruments in Europe, and some their predecessors include the gittern and mandola in Italy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There are a number of regional variants but two of the most common ones are the Neapolitan mandolin and the Lombardic mandolin, the Neapolitan style probably most well known (and thank you, Wikipedia).

Anyway, the album begins with the Concerto for 2 Mandolins, Strings and Basso continuo in G major by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Here, Avital is accompanied by Alan Sariel, mandolin, and the Venice Baroque Orchestra. They take the outer Allegros with a graceful panache, not too fast but quick enough to give them a lively spirit. These sections also give the soloists a chance to show off their considerable skills, and the final movement is particularly robust. The central Andante is delicately handled, light as a feather, sweet as a flower in May. Quite lovely all the way around, actually.

Next, we hear the Adagio ma non troppo in E flat major for Mandolin and Harp by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Avital is accompanied by Anneleen Lenaerts on harp, and together they provide a beautifully lyrical reading of Beethoven’s music. It is a love song, really, and the pair do well by it.

After that is Death Is a Friend of Ours by British composer David Bruce (b. 1970), with Avital, mandolin; Sean Shibe, guitar; Anneleen Lenaerts, harp; Ophira Zakai, theorbo; and Yizhar Karshon, harpsichord. Here we get a surprising throwback for a modern work, combining the best of the nineteenth century with a distinctly contemporary sensibility. It’s vibrant and rhythmic with a charming middle section. It’s all quite festive, in fact, despite the rather gloomy titles the composer gave to the movements: “Inside the Wave,” “The Death of Despair,” and “Death Is a Friend of Ours.”

Things continue with the Prelude for Solo Mandolin by Italian composer and cellist Giovanni Sollima (b. 1962), in which Avital obviously takes it alone. It’s the most-recent composition on the program, yet it references older styles and dances. It’s also probably the most fascinating and imaginative piece on the agenda. Avital’s playing is a revelation.

Following that is the Sonata in D minor for Mandolin and Basso continuo by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757). Here, Avital is accompanied Ophira Zakai, theorbo; Patrick Sepec, cello; and Yizhar Karshon, harpsichord. Scarlatti’s work is stately and dignified, The fact that the composer may not have been written the piece specifically for the mandolin is beside the point. Surviving manuscripts do not indicate what solo instrument Scarlatti had in mind, but the music seems well suited to the mandolin, and Avital appears to enjoy it.

Then there is the Sonata a tre for Mandolin, Guitar and Harpsichord by Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984), where Avital is accompanied by Sean Shibe, guitar, and Yizhar Karshon, harpsichord. Here, the music references Middle-Eastern sounds, and it makes a nice contrast with the rest of the lineup.

The program concludes with the Carillon, Recitatif, and Masque for Mandolin, Guitar and Harp by German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012). Avital is accompanied by Sean Shibe, guitar, and Anneleen Lenaerts, harp. The three movements well describe the sounds therein, and Avital and company do a good job delineating them. Avital says he likes to think of the opening section as “a walk through an imaginary toyshop.” The sounds are creative in themselves and creatively explored by the soloists, whose three instruments blend into one.

Producer Andreas Neubronner and engineers Sebastian Nattkemper and Rainer Maillard recorded the music at Stadttheater, Furth; Teldex Studio, Berlin; and Meistersaal, Berlin. As we might expect from DG, the sound is clear and rich, with a hint of hall resonance to complement the realism of each track.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa