Tuesday 17 November 2020

A riot of colours and textures: Avi Avital's imaginative programme of over 300 years of music for the mandolin - Art of the Mandolin

Art of the Mandolin - Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Beethoven, Ben Haim, Henze, Sollima Bruce - Avi Avital, Alon Sariel, Anneleen Lennaerts, Sean Shibe, Ophira Zakal, Yizhar Karshon, Patrick Sepec, Venice Baroque Orchestra; Deutsche Grammophon

Art of the Mandolin
- Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Beethoven, Ben Haim, Henze, Sollima Bruce - Avi Avital, Alon Sariel, Anneleen Lennaerts, Sean Shibe, Ophira Zakal, Yizhar Karshon, Patrick Sepec, Venice Baroque Orchestra; Deutsche Grammophon

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 November 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Avi Avital in an imaginative personal history of the mandolin, from music by Vivaldi and Scarlatti, through Beethoven and Ben Haim, to contemporary pieces by Henze, Sollima and Bruce

Mandolin player Avi Avital's back catalogue is full of his, often superb, performances of music written for other instruments. Partly this is explained by the sheer lack of repertoire, but partly from the fact that Avital's first teacher was a violinist, and they played violin repertoire. 
In a charming introductory essay on his latest disc Art of the Mandolin on Deutsche Grammophon, Avital explains how he was taught by the violinist Simcha Nathanson who had emigrated to the Israeli city of Beer Sheva from the USSR in the 1970s. But the local conservatory did not need a violin teacher. Nathanson found some mandolins in the basement; as the instrument is tuned the same as the violin, he started to teach violin pieces on the mandolin. That is how Avital learned, as part of a youth mandolin orchestra which became a local legend. 'I believe that he had very little, if any, knowledge of the original repertoire for mandolin – or if he did, he chose to ignore it. Yet through this ignorance he brought up a generation of young mandolin players trained in the classical repertoire, all of us holding the pick “the wrong way” – as I later learned from Italian teachers.'

So, on Art of the Mandolin on Deutsche Grammophon, Avi Avital goes back to repertoire written specifically for mandolin. He performs Vivaldi's Concerto for two mandolins in G major RV 532 with Alon Sariel (mandolin) and Venice Baroque Orchestra,  and then a group of works with Sean Shibe (guitar), Anneleen Lenaerts (harp), Ophira Zakai (theorbo), Patric Sepec (cello) and Yizhar Karshon (harpsichord) with an emphasis on chamber music for plucked instruments, with Beethoven's Adagio ma non troppo in E flat major for mandolin and harp (harpsichord), WoO 43/2, David Bruce's Death is a Friend of Ours for mandolin, guitar, harp, theorbo, and harpsichord, Giovanni Sollima's Prelude for solo mandolin, Domenico Scarlatti's Sonata in D minor for mandolin and basso continuo, Paul Ben Haim's Sonata a tre for mandolin, guitar and harpsichord and Hans Werner Henze's Carillon, Recitatif, Masque for mandolin, guitar and harp.

We begin with Vivaldi where Avital is joined by mandolin player Alon Sariel and the Venice Baroque Orchestra for the Concerto for two mandolins. The vivacious first movement features the two players chasing each other around delightfully. The slow movement has a wonderful delicate texture with plucked strings, and for all the charm of Vivaldi's melodies it really is about texture. The finale is equally vigorous and wonderfully up-tempo.

There then follows a sequence of chamber piece which, except for Patric Sepec's continuo cello in the Scarlatti sonata, are all for groups of plucked instruments. From Beethoven to Ben Haim to Bruce, these are all fascinating essays in varieties of colours and textures which are not often explored.

Beethoven's Adagio is one of four pieces for the instrument he wrote, all dedicated to a young countess, Josephine of Clary-Adringen. They were perhaps intended to be more than a gift! The resulting piece is delicate and charming, in many ways quite surprising.

David Bruce's Death is a Friend of Ours, a three movement work for mandolin, guitar, harp, theorbo and harpsichord. Avital has worked with Bruce before [see my review of The North Wind was a Woman], and the new work was premiered at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. The work starts of in vivid fashion with 'Inside the wave' which really utilises the brilliant sound world of five different plucked instruments. Bruce references the mandolin's popular origins in this vigorous and energetic movement. By complete contrast, 'The Death of Despair' is slower in tempo, full of lovely serenade-like fragments over appealing strummed textures. The final movement 'Death is a Friend of Ours' is, despite its title, very upbeat and joyous and in fact the whole work is uplifting, with Bruce clearly revelling in the sound world of five plucked instruments.

Next comes the Prelude for solo mandolin by the Italian cellist and composer Giovanni Sollima, another recent work. This starts quite exotically, and then suddenly ups the tempo and is full of references to the sort of Italian popular dances which were once the staple of the instrument.

Scarlatti's sonata is a one of a group of five where the writing seems less obviously suited to the keyboard, and may have been for mandolin. The opening Allegro is a charming and lively movement, which sounds entirely at home on the mandolin, with some nice sense of contrast between mandolin and the bowed cello. The Grave is wonderfully delicate, followed by a toe tapping Allegro which is certain to put a smile on your face.

Paul Ben Haim was born in Germany and studied in Munch with a pupil of Anton Bruckner. After emigration to Israel in 1933 he became one of a group of Israeli composers who sought to create a language which fused Western classical with local cultures, both Jewish liturgical, folklore and Middle-Eastern and Arabic musics. By using the combination of mandolin, guitar and harpsichord, Ben Haim could also reference the sound world of Middle Eastern instruments, whilst the way he uses the harpsichord gives the work a very 20th century feel (notably Frank Martin's concertante works for harpsichord). The result blends the exotic with the familiar, and is full of the composer's delight in the different textures his chosen instruments could create. A lively first movement is followed one which is slow and intense. The finale is up-tempo, but still rather dark and again full of intriguing texture.

The disc ends with Hans Werner Henze's 1974 Carillon, Recitatif, Masque for mandolin, guitar and harp, another trio for plucked instruments. But by using harp rather than harpsichord, Henze can create gentler lyrical textures and his opening movement is full of surprising sounds and imaginative textures, whilst still evoking a sense of the neo-classical lyrical. The movements get progressively shorter, so that a flowing recitative is followed by the tiny but spiky Masque.

For this exploration of the art of the mandolin, Avi Avital has eschewed the repertoire written by mandolin players themselves, and instead created an imaginative programme of music all written for the mandolin. The result is a wonder selection of textures and timbres, as different composers delight in different ways over what is possible. The disc's emphasis on chamber music for plucked instruments is a real treat, and a real sense of joy and engagement comes from the playing of all concerned. Highly recommended.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) - Concerto for two mandolins in G major, RV532
Ludwig van Beehtoven (1770-1827) - Adagio ma non troppo in E flat major, WoO43/2
David Bruce (born 1970) - Death is a Friend of Ours
Giovanni Sollima (born 1962) - Prelude for solo mandolin
Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) - Sonata in D minor K89
Paul Ben Haim (1897-1984) - Sonata a tre
Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) - Carillon, Recitatif, Masque
Recorded Fürth, Stadttheater, December 2019, Berlin, Teldex Studio January 2020, Berlin, Meistersaal, April 2020
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 0289 483 8534 1CD [57:56]

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