Monday, July 20, 2015

Avi Avital and friends perform "Between Worlds" (Deutsche Grammophon)

Born in Beer Sheba, Israel, in 1978, Avi Avital began playing the mandolin at age eight, soon joining the mandolin orchestra founded and directed by his teacher, Russian-born Simcha Nathanson. Following graduation from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Avital went to the Conservatorio Cesare Pollini (Padua, Italy) where he studied original mandolin repertoire with Ugo Orlandi. Today Avi Avital has a busy international performing schedule, now recording exclusively with Deutsche Grammophon. The artist refers to his recent recording “Between Worlds” (2014) as “an invitation to go on a journey and a tribute to the adventurous character of those 20th century composers who introduced the tunes and the spirit of folk traditions…into their art…” Performing on mandolin or mandola, he is joined by other artists, among them, accordionist Richard Galliano, harpist Catrin Finch, percussionist Itamar Doari, clarinetist Giora Feidman, and more.

The disc immediately sweeps the listener into the exotic world of Georgian folk music and peasant life with Avital’s arrangement of four of the 45 “Miniatures” composed by Sulkhan Tsintsade (1925-1991), one of Georgia’s most prominent 20th century composers. In this scoring for string quartet, percussion and mandolin, the compelling timbres of the original settings for string quartet are somewhat mollified, yet the zesty, fresh and engaging colors of Georgian traditional modes and stringent harmonies nevertheless shine through the textures. Joining Avital, the high quality playing of the Kammerakademie Potsdam makes for subtle performance with mandolin in a setting based on Arthur Willner’s string orchestra version of Béla Bartók’s “Romanian Folk Dances” Sz 56, a collection of six tiny, individually-flavored miniatures, composed originally for piano in 1915 and orchestrated for small ensemble in 1917 by the composer. Avital and his fellow musicians highlight the invigorating beauty, exotic modal keys and diversity of these dances – originally fiddle tunes or tunes played on shepherd’s flute - from different regions of Transylvania, collected by Bartók on expeditions in that region (1909-1913). Avi Avital is joined by percussionist Itamar Doari in an exciting rendition of “Bučimiš”, a traditional Bulgarian line dance from East Trakia. With each phrase constructed from a bar of 4/4 plus one of 7/8, Avital and Doari address the quirky, relentless, driving rhythms with composure and articulacy, Avital’s textural “harmonies” in keeping with the eastern European sound world. Doari, born in Israel in 1985 and today a key figure on the international music scene, teamed up hand-in-glove with Avital on this piece. Remaining in Eastern Europe, but with a piece composed by an Italian, we heard “Csárdás”, composed by the Neapolitan violinist and composer Vittorio Monti (1868-1922), the csárdás being a representative Hungarian dance danced in the csárda – a tavern or inn in farming villages. The composer, a mandolin player himself, suggested the piece, composed around 1904 and a favorite among violinists and gypsy orchestras, be played on violin, mandolin or even piano. Here Avital collaborates in the arrangement and performance of the piece with the great French accordionist Richard Galliano who, like Avital, has expanded the repertoire of the instrument he plays, giving it new horizons. Offering a fresh and tasteful take on this widely performed piece, “so obviously for mandolin” in Avital’s words, they present the distinctive soulfulness of the music, the poignant lyricism and yearning of the slow “lassü”, to be contrasted by the virtuosity and abandon of the fast “friss”.

Another memorable collaboration between Avital and Galliano is their setting of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Aria” (Cantilena) from “Bachianas brasilieras” no.5, one of a set of nine pieces combining the musical influence of J.S.Bach with Brazilian elements. Composed in 1938, Villa-Lobos scored the Aria for solo soprano and an “orchestra of ‘cellos”. As to playing the vocalise itself, its haunting, cantabile melodic lines exuding the flavor of traditional Brazilian song, Avital and Galliano take turns. The middle section’s drama is incisively shaped, suggesting the highly charged agenda of the accompanying poem, then to be followed by the lullaby-like repeat of the original vocalise. Strategic timing is everything here, but so is instrumental timbre, with the singing quality of the mandolin met by Galliano’s rich palette of accordion sounds. Juan Esteban Cuacci’s arrangement is one of many written to Argentinean-born Astor Piazzolla’s “Fuga y Misterio” (Fugue and Mystery), one piece from his highly successful 1969 tango “operita” (operetta) “Maria de Buenos Aires”. For this intriguing blend of counterpoint and intoxicating rhythms, yet another work combining skill in the use of Baroque devices with the composer's own ethnic music, the 12 bar fugue theme is first stated by Avital, to then undergo fugal treatment, but there are still many surprises yet to come after that. Joining Avital are eminent clarinetist Giora Feidman, Galliano, Klaus Stoll (double bass) and Doari. Following the clean, comprehensible playing of the fugue, the work uses the theme to burgeon into a volatile tango, to take on a mysterious mood, to include jazzy influences, then ending with breathless energy. In playing bristling with inspiration, fine detail and sophistication, the influences of Latin temperament, of love, of the sordid reality of the underworld, of tragedy and mystery are threaded through the piece. Performing Manuel de Falla’s “Siete Canciones Populares Españolas” (Seven Spanish Folksongs), arranged by flautist, composer and arranger Efrain Oscher (b. 1974, Uruguay) were Avital, Oscher himself, Sacha Rattle (clarinet), Ralf Benesch (guitar), Sarah Verrue (harp), Zvi Plesser (cello), Stoll and Doari. Composed in 1914 for voice and piano, all authentic regional folksongs from different regions of Spain, it is De Falla’s most popular vocal work. As to the question of performing it without the verbal texts, Falla himself wrote: “In all honesty, I think that in popular song, the spirit is more important than the letter. The essential features of these songs are rhythm, tonality and melodic intervals.” Oscher’s outstandingly evocative arrangements, never overloaded or thick in texture, suggest the color and character of each of the miniatures, with Avital, in the solo role, relating to each of the pieces individually – from those that dance, those that weep, to the Andalusian gypsy/flamenco associations of “Polo”, to the fragility of “Nana” - the traditional Spanish lullaby that was sung to the composer as a small child, its insistent, rocking motif ever present.

The CD moves its focus to yet another sound world and to an entirely different lifestyle with “Nigun”, the second of three pieces of Ernest Bloch’s “Three Pieces of Chassidic Life”, with a setting by German composer and arranger Andreas N. Tarkmann. Joining Avital are Simone Bernadini (violin), Amihai Grosz (viola), Plesser, Stoll, Rattle and Verrue. Chassidism teaches that one can achieve a mystical experience directly through intense prayer or meditation; this can take the form of musical improvisation or “nigun”, as it is called. Bloch’s “Nigun” is actually fully notated but the performance presented to us on this disc gives expression to the free, improvisational character of this music, as well as to the beauty of the modes which form the basis of eastern European Jewish music. Avital’s meditational, reflective and profound playing, with rewarding moments of close communication with Feidman, is fervent in emotion. The ensemble of fine players joins him in recreating this scene of hope, sorrow and ardent utterance. The same sound-world echoes in a klezmer improvisation “Freilich Ron” by Ora Bat Chaim (b. Israel, 1935); here the simple song itself is not lost in the improvisatory process, with Feidman and Avital’s “conversation” imitating the human voice, its excitability and intonation, as might be performed by entertainers at a Chassidic wedding.

The Finale (Vivace ma non troppo) from Antonín Dvořák’s String Quartet No.12 opus 96 “American” (1893) played on mandolin, violin, viola, ‘cello, double bass and accordion (Ivano Battiston), in an arrangement by Israeli-born pianist, composer and arranger Ohad Ben-Ari, might raise a few eyebrows among chamber music aficionados. The work owes its place on the disc due to the Czech composer’s interest in Native American drumming and African American spirituals, the influence of which some listeners claim to hear in the quartet, with others insisting the work is consistent with Dvořák’s European folk- and classical traditions. This much-loved quartet, here presented in hybrid instrumentation, is played with warmth and joy, expressive of the composer’s happiness and energy at being on vacation in Spillville, Iowa. The disc concludes with “Hen Ferchetan” (Old Maid), a traditional Welsh song arranged by Avital and Welsh harpist Catrin Finch. In this song, its text telling of Little Lisa of Hendre who loses her lover and tries to find another, the two artists preserve the song’s authentic Welsh character, its Dorian modal melody as articulate and uncluttered as the harmonies Finch and Avital choose.

Avi Avital’s versatility and open mind take him to many locations and cultures. A brilliant, unique and communicative artist, he has invited some of today’s finest performers to join him on his musical journey. All the works on “Between Worlds” bear some connection with the folk music of whatever country from which they originate. This being the case, Avital talks of each listener as forming his own personal associations with the pieces. "My first partner here is my mandolin", Avital writes in the liner notes. "Familiar and foreign, folkish and classical, the mandolin is both a musical chameleon and a seasoned traveller...the one voice that links the many varied pieces on this album..." The artist speaks of this disc as having much personal meaning to him, that he has a specific attachment to each work on it. "I believe will find the ongoing play of opposing forces outwards and in, exploration and return, adventure and home," Via his deep bond with the mandolin (his “voice”) and with the various pieces, Avital and his fellow players have produced a recording that is indeed a polished jewel, a disc that begs not to be removed too quickly from the CD player.

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