By John J. Puccio
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.
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.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: