Grammy-nominated classical mandolinist Avi Avital is an artist who pushes at boundaries and defies expectations. With his current recording, however, he brings the mandolin home, to the music of Antonio Vivaldi, the beloved Venetian composer whose Mandolin Concerto forms the cornerstone the Old Testament, says Avital of the instrument s repertoire.
Yet a virtuoso interpretation of the four Vivaldi concertos here recorded that for mandolin and its sibling for lute, together with two familiar violin concertos in Avital s own transcriptions is not enough. For Avital, as both soloist and musical director, recording a Vivaldi album is not an act of passive veneration, but an open-ended invitation to explore the man’s music and his world.
The music-making is bold, personal and immediate. Avital often uses a different plectrum or pick for each section of music. His sense of dynamic contrast pushes the limits of the recording engineers technical capacities. Tempos are not defined in strict intervals, but remain as dynamic as volume, subject to the ebb and flow of the melodic architecture. Intonation is precise, but tones are occasionally bent, as a jazz musician might, to add exotic spice to moments of emotional extreme. The accompanying lute, cello and harpsichord are given freedom to temperamentally punctuate the music s structure.
Fantasy is a word Avital often invokes. Summer from Vivaldi s famous Four Seasons, for example, stands detached from its companions. Gone is any trace of a quaint, naturalistic still life; rather, Avital envisages a kaleidoscopic nature fantasy. On the mandolin, the first movement s bird calls evoke an almost shocking realism; the second movement s squeaky sul ponticello violins suggest no mimetic insect-like effect, but cast a chilly, almost macabre gloom over La Serenissima, a city known equally for its morbidity as for its splendour; and, in the final movement, the mandolin s frenetic runs suggest less the fall of rain than the breathless scurry of a Venetian fleeing the downpour.
Each concerto is conceived in such richly evocative terms. Also, no two works share the same instrumentation: in the middle Largo of the A minor Concerto, unexpectedly, cello and bass are stripped from the texture, leaving just a seamless plucked legato suspended on a delicate treble cloud; the D major Concerto dispenses with violas entirely, leaving a gap between soprano and bass voices precisely the zone where Avital s mandolin spins its web.
Even that classic, Vivaldi s Mandolin Concerto, gets an inspired makeover. Typified by plucking strings and light harpsichord beneath a precious mandolin line, here the harpsichord is replaced by an organ. With the latter casting long harmonic shadows, suddenly the work sheds its lingering naivety. To the unsuspecting ear, these differences are barely perceptible, yet each aural twist keeps the listening experience vivid.
These concertos are counterpointed by a piece of chamber music, Vivaldi s Trio Sonata RV 82, and a traditional Venetian gondolier song, La biondina in gondoleta. The Trio Sonata is intimate Vivaldi, representing the composer in his chambers, rather than in the church or theatre, while the song is a reminder of the popular music being played just outside Vivaldi s window.
La biondina is not in standard Italian but in Venetian dialect, a patois with its own distinctive vocabulary and syntax. Avital reaches for a smaller mandolin, the kind popularly played in Venice in Vivaldi s time. Another new sound, a baroque guitar, is added. To an extent, the album s final track is the most authentic, yet, together with the sonata, it traces back to Avital s point of departure: in conception, each work adds color and contrast to the creative arc of this Venetian fantasy world.