Monday 8 December 2014

Avi Avital and Mahan Esfahani - concerts by candlelight

Avi Avital - photo Guy Hecht
Avi Avital - photo Guy Hecht
Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Avital, Beethoven, Martinu, Bach; Avi Avital, Mahan Esfahani; Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 07 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Informal atmosphere and brilliant music making, all by candle-light

Israeli-born mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital and Tehran born harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani brought their lively duo to the candle-lit ambience of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe Theatre on Sunday 7 September 2014 as part of the playhouse's series of concerts by candle-light. This marked their London duo debut and their programme of Domenico Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Martinu and Bach was notable for the way that the pair combined seemingly effortless virtuosity with great charm in a programme presented a serious attitude to music in a light hearted way. 

Mahan Esfahani -  Marco Borggreve: Amsterdam, 2009
Mahan Esfahani -  Marco Borggreve: Amsterdam, 2009
The various items were introduced by the performers and both indulged in what can only be described as banter (they make a very good double act) which created a lovely relaxed atmosphere in the candle light playhouse. There no electrickery at all except in the playing, which was brilliant.

The pair opened with a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, K90, which seems to exist in a version which may be for mandolin and basso continuo. Whether Scarlatti intended it or not, Avital and Esfahani made a very fine case for performing it on this combination. The mandolin has a surprisingly resonant sound, and though a plucked instrument (as is the harpsichord) has a timbre markedly different to the harpsichord's which means the two instruments set each other off nicely. Also, the mandolin has an interesting resonance which gives notes a longer duration before dying away, with the option of strumming for longer notes. After a stately opening movement we got a catchy and rather bravura Allegro, followed by a gently elegant 12/8 movement before the briskly toe-tapping finale.

The mandolin was a surprisingly popular instrument, particular so with young ladies, in the 18th century (it was considered rather more polite than sticking bits of wood in your mouth to play the flute). So it is not surprisingly that the instrument should feature in Vivaldi's output. Avital and Esfahani played Vivaldi's Sonata in G minor RV 85. A galant, stylish Andante was followed by a Larghetto in which the running harpsichord part supported a gently evocative mandolin melody. Finally there was a jolly Allegro, with lots of notes but which certainly brought a smile to everyone's faces.

Avital play a short solo for the mandolin which he had composed; in an amusing story he explained how the piece came about and that it was his first and last composition. The initial melody had an eerie feel, with lively folk influences coming in too and a whole variety of mandolin techniques.

When Beethoven was 19 he rather fell in love with one of his patron's daughters. Being a well brought up young lady she played the mandolin, so Beethoven wrote some sonatinas for mandolin and harpsichord with the intention of the pair playing them. They were never published and the manuscript part has only relatively recently been discovered. The Andante con variazione WoO 44/2 proved to be a charming sequence of variations with each instrument getting its turn in the limelight.  There was also some charming interaction between the two instruments.

After the interval Esfahani played Deux Impromptus pour Clavecin, harpsichord pieces by the 20th century Czech composer Martinu. Martinu's harpsichord music dates from his Parisian years in the 1930's when Wanda Landowska was leading the harpsichord revival. The two impromptus were both quite baroque in feel, the first a quirky toccata and the second a triple time piece with quite a brilliant feel.

There then followed two mystery items. First Avital played a mandolin solo, which seemed very Eastern European folk influenced, especially in its combination of bravura and melancholy, leading to a very perky dance. Then Esfahani played an elegant harpsichord piece which had a French feel.

Finally we had Bach. His Sonata for mandolin and basso continuo in E minor BWV 1034 is in fact a flute sonata which Avital has arranged for mandolin, an arrangement which works well. There was something rather involving about the sound combination of the two performers, and the opening Adagio had an elegant mandolin tune over a walking accompaniement. Avital got to display his facility for neat passagework in all the notes of the Allegro whilst the Andante was gentle and really rather magical. The sontata finished with a busy Allegro with yet more deft fingerwork from the players.

The audience response throughout the concert had been lively and enthusiastic, creating just the right relaxed atmosphere for a Sunday afternoon concert (or any concert for that matter). We were treated to an encore, the Largo  from Vivaldi's Concerto for flauto dolce.

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