Monday, October 1, 2012

A new CD: Avi Avital - Bach

Bach concertos and sonatas played on the mandolin? A new CD featuring the interpretation and playing of Israeli-born Avi Avital has some interesting and pertinent answers to this question. “Avi Avital – Bach” (Deutsche Grammophon, 2012) is a CD of familiar J.S.Bach works reworked and soloed by mandolin-player Avi Avital. Avital is joined by Shalev Ad-El-harpsichord, Ophira Zakai-theorbo, Ira Givol-‘cello and the Potsdam Kammerakademie Orchestra.

Avi Avital (b.1978, Beersheba) began learning the mandolin at age eight, soon joining the local mandolin youth orchestra which was directed by Russian-born violinist Simcha Nathanson. In 2007, Avital won first prize in Israel’s prestigious Aviv Competitions, becoming the first mandolin player to win the award. Following studies at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Avital studied in Italy with Ugo Orlandi at the Cesare Pollini Conservatory (Padua). He appears widely as a soloist in Europe, England, China and the USA and has released recordings of klezmer-, Baroque- and modern music. Concerned by the fact that much of the repertoire he wished to play was not originally written for mandolin, Avital, playing on a mandolin built by Arik Kerman, has taken a courageous step to widen the scope of works to be played on the instrument.

Thoughts on the flexibility of instrumentation are relevant if one considers that Bach’s Concerto for Keyboard no.1 in D minor BWV 1052, a work composed in Leipzig in 1738, was the transcription of a lost violin concerto. Often presented in a bold and grand manner, Avital and his sensitive orchestral players take the listener into the intricate spider web of the mechanics of the work. Once adjusted to the gentler volume level, the ear follows Avital through the harmonic- and melodic course of the three movements as he negotiates them with superb rhythmical precision. Breaking away from its unison majestic themes and the expansive dialogue between orchestra and soloist in the first movement, Avital creates the sense of freedom of the concerting soloist in brilliant transitions and cascading arpeggiated cadenza passages. In the second movement – Adagio – he weaves mystery into the meditative text that had its beginnings in “We must suffer much injustice to enter the Kingdom of God” from Cantata BWV 146.

The Harpsichord Concerto in G minor BWV 1056, whose outer movements are thought to have been from a lost oboe concerto, has undergone reconstruction as a violin concerto. In the disc liner notes, Avital talks about his transcription of the work as falling “somewhere between the harpsichord and violin versions”. His reworking is skilful, the mandolin part threading its way through the string orchestra, as textures become progressively denser in the first movement. The Largo movement is poignant, with pizzicato strings giving the mandolin centre stage; here, Avital’s phrases are as artfully shaped as they are fragile. It is the mandolin that reinforces the vitality of the string statements in the Presto movement. This is exciting performance! Keeping a safe distance from over-amplification, the engineers have placed the mandolin sound in the body of the orchestra; this fine musical balance, however, allows Avital’s passagework to shine articulately through the orchestral sound.

In Concerto in A minor BWV 1041, originally a violin concerto, we hear Bach stretching the boundaries of the Vivaldi-associated Italian style, with solo- and tutti passages punctuating and overlapping each other. Avital and the orchestra revel in Bach’s experimentation and subtlety. With freshness and vitality, they give a buoyant reading of the opening movement, with its extensive echoing and syncopation. The Andante sees an interesting juxtaposition of the sturdy tutti character and the intimacy and expressiveness of Avital’s solo as he weaves it through its intensely human and never-quite-predictable course with thoughtful engagement. In the dance-like Allegro assai, Avital employs crisply worked ornaments to spice the pizzazz and virtuosity of the movement.

The Sonata in E minor BWV 1034 for flute and harpsichord was probably composed during Bach’s years in Cöthen (1717-1723); this being the case, it would fit in with the period in which Bach showed intense interest in the transverse flute, a time he included a series of flute obbligato parts in cantatas. (The E minor Sonata makes great demands of the flautist, with lengthy phrases not always taking into consideration the players need for breath!) Nevertheless, the work has been arranged for instruments other than the flute. In his reworking of it, Avi Avital is joined by Shalev Ad-El, Ophira Zakai and Ira Givol in a chamber music setting. Their high quality ensemble playing carries the mark of experience and good taste. Relating to the sonata da chiesa form and character of the work, Avital states the solemn melodic line of the first movement with poetic beauty, maintaining the energy of the line and its relationship to the continuo part in order to bring out dissonances created by suspensions. In the second movement – Allegro – Avital and the continuo section engage in its characteristic counterpoint, echo effects and sequences with much joie-de-vivre, with technical solo demands met with easeful nimbleness by Avital. Avital has chosen to score the third movement – Andante – for mandolin and lute only, the tranquil, meditative scene set in wistful tones by Zakai, with the mandolin, however, creating the complete melodic course enhanced by cadenzas. In the final movement, dancelike in character, with all four players back in a careful balance of forces, delicate dynamic changes and nuances play a major part in a genuine affecting of the senses.

An accepted strategy for Baroque composers to transcribe works of their own or of other composers they admired, Bach himself prepared new concerto material by rearranging previous works, a practice also carried out in his cantatas, the B minor Mass and the Christmas Oratorio. Musicologist Frank Macomber has analyzed some 130 works in which Bach has transcribed previously written material of his own. Avi Avital’s reconstructions and ensuing performances of Bach works, music that “goes far beyond any given instrument” (in his words), offer fresh insight into this material and a new- and inspiring listening experience. This is music of the senses. The performance on the disc represents Avi Avital’s deep enquiry into Bach’s compositional methods.

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