Review: Avi Avital, Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, City Recital Hall, Sydney

I sometimes wonder if artistic director Paul Dyer chooses his troupe and soloists on the basis of good looks. The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra (ABO) is a cut above the usual aesthetic standards of classical ensembles.  But maybe their palpable cheerfulness just lends a sexy glow.

Israeli-born virtuoso mandolinist Avi Avital is certainly a spunk in the pantheon shared by Philippe Jaroussky and Stefano Montanari, two other chamber music ‘rock stars’ I’ve had the pleasure to ogle, I mean listen to, at the ABO’s Sydney home, City Recital Hall, Angel Place.

Credited with bringing the mandolin into the limelight after centuries of languishing as a musical wall-flower, Avital specialises in baroque classics such as Bach and Vivaldi, reinterpreting the clavier and violin parts. He also brings European folk music to life, including klezmer and Hungarian dances. In 2010 Avital became the first mandolin player to be nominated for a Grammy for ‘Best international soloist’ for his recording of Avner Doman’s Mandolin Concerto.

It was a slightly chocolate-box program on the surface, and the renditions of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D major for lute, strings and continuo was disappointing as the soloist struggled to attain sufficient volume, despite being technically impressive. The delicacy of this instrument can result in a recalcitrant plunkiness when pushed too hard. Similarly Bach’s Concerto in A Minor, while lovely, left me wondering if I wouldn’t feel more at ease with the more confident cut-through of the violin for which the piece had been originally written. The slightly breathless, though lilting interpretation of Pachelbel’s Canon was also a bit odd.

At interval, my companion suggested that a mandolin in this context was perhaps a ‘gimmick’. While I wouldn’t go that far, I did approach the second half of the program with some doubts.

These were soon allayed with two superb interpretations, of Bach’s Sonata in E Minor and Albinoni’s Sonata 2 in C Major. The former was the highlight of the program for me, with a passage in the Andante duet for cello and mandolin, both plucked, so that the warm timbre of the cello nestled the lighter mandolin in a unique and loving embrace, which was gently backed up by the lute. Similarly the Grave from Albinoni was deeply moving, with a satisfying capacity for legato, or at least its suggestion.

The final two pieces also proved that the modest looking mandolin has some funky muscularity when put to the test of Manuel De Falla’s Danse Espagnole and Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances. A joyful ole! from a member of the audience topped it off and delighted the musicians.

As ethnic inflected ale-house romps, these pieces brought together the playfulness and verve of Avital’s technical brilliance with the ABO’s signature exuberance. The encore of a piece in 15/16 time did my head in, but the bent notes reminded me that most of these tunes — particularly the dances — were all pop songs of their time. More of this adventurous repertoire next time please!

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