Avi Avital: ‘Vivaldi’ Album Review

Grammy-nominated Avi Avital is an extraordinary mandolinist who brings a vibrant precision to everything he plays. We’ve seen this in the transcribed works on his Bach album as well as his seriously cool and eclectic collection of folk tunes from around the world, Between Worlds where he’s joined by an accordion, clarinet and double bass. In this recent recording (released Feburary 24th in the US and March 23rd internationally), he brings his combination of energy and peerless technique to works by Vivaldi. While Mr. Avital typically transcribes the works he plays from the original intended instrument (e.g., violin or harpsichord) to the mandolin, Vivaldi actually wrote a concerto for the mandolin (tracks 7-9). While I’ll never tire of hearing traditionally played classical works, there is a freshness brought to hearing them on a comparatively offbeat instrument, especially in the hands of an expert.

Mr. Avital’s passion for the music and his instrument are clear from the first notes plucked from Vivaldi’s “Concerto in A Minor (RV 356).” This well established concerto among the main-stream repertoire has been recorded by many artists including Itzhak Perlman and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra as well as Sarah Chang and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Hearing this concerto with mandolin substituting for the violin really perks my ears up. Precisely because the sound is different, I pay attention in ways I always should but, alas, don’t always maintain. This sound reminds me a bit of Pointillism since the relatively smooth and continuous sound of the violin is replaced with the more staccato sound of the mandolin. It conveys movement while bringing on visions of gondolas. In fact, it was recorded in the Veneto region (Venice is its capital) with Venetian artists comprising the Venice Baroque Orchestra. This music has a sense of place.

Mr. Avital et. al. next tackle Vivaldi’s “Concerto In A Minor (RV 356).” Now this was originally for lute, so, while the mandolin has its own unique sound, the pacing and separated notes are more akin to the original. This version is played deftly with all members playing together well. There is a wholeness to the sound sometimes missing in chamber pieces.

Avi Avital is allowed to really come home with Vivaldi’s Mandolin “Concerto in C Major (RV 425).” Despite the staccato nature of the mandolin playing, there is a velvety current to the music of this piece, especially in the first movement. There is also an intimacy brought to the sound. One almost senses an inner courtyard with outdoor fire ablaze whilst you sit under the stars and listen to this amazing music. The second movement is masterfully played, where a lesser artist could allow precision and pacing to falter. It is not the virtuosity of speed (see the third movement for that) but the art of emphasis and timing. It takes a real sense of the music, not simply great technique, but true soul, to give this movement is moment.

In the next piece, the second movement of “Concerto in C Major” for Flautino, RV 443 is usually played by a piccolo or recorder. It’s a slower tempo with emphasis on the lightness of the notes while accenting them at just the right moments.  The “Trio Sonata in C Major (RV 82)” is taken on with equal agility. Once again, we find the mandolin substituting for the lute, so the transition is fairly natural.

Most listeners will quickly recognize the next piece as part of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons; it is “Concerto in G Minor (RV 315)” best known as “The Summer”. This is where you most recognize the melody yet sense its newness due to presence of the mandolin. Mr. Avital and the Venice Baroque Orchestra make it seem like it was always meant to be played with the mandolin. (To compare to a first-class rendition using the original violin, see Anne Akiko Meyers’ recording).

Wrapping up the album in true Venetian style, they perform  “La Biondina in Gondoleta” (The Blonde Girl in the Gondola) sung by Juan Diego Flórez. This is my first opportunity to hear Mr. Flórez sing; he has a powerful, smooth, beautiful voice put to great use here. Now I’m definitely drifting down Venice’s canals.

This is a beautiful album in its own right made even better by the freshness of the sound. I haven’t listened to a lot of mandolin in the past but will take more interest in it. I highly recommend the album. I see why Deutsche Grammophon signed up Avi Avital.