Fort Worth — Don’t hold your breath waiting for the great mandolin renaissance. Thursday night’s recital by mandolinist Avi Avital on The Cliburn at the Kimbell series, while pleasant and informative in many ways, failed to make a convincing statement for either Avital or the repertoire he had chosen for performance on the mandolin with American harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss.
Avital weighted the program heavily with transcriptions—understandably, given the narrow shelf of serious works for the instrument. Granted, the portion of the classical repertoire made up of arrangements and paraphrases from the original to different instruments or ensembles is an interesting and meaningful addition to the musical experience. Every instrument has its limits, however, and the transcriptions Avital presented, including arrangements of works of Domenico Scarlatti, J. S. Bach, and Vivaldi, kept reminding not of the special and unique qualities of the mandolin, of which there are many, but of its limitations.
Indeed, the two strongest moments on the program—and these were moments that made the trip on a cool winter evening worth the effort—came in the three works that were not transcriptions or arrangements. The Sonata in D minor by Roberto Valentini, an Anglo-Italian composer of the high baroque (whose name and music this listener had never encountered) made perfect sense and even contained some moments of appropriately baroque drama and intensity. Likewise—and here’s another I, and probably you, too, have never encountered—Beethoven’s Andante and Variations in D for mandolin and harpsichord was full of early Beethoven-ish humor and high spirits.
Avital, a personable stage presence, had informed the audience that Beethoven, writing for a potential girlfriend who played the mandolin, gave the mandolin an easy part accompanied with a more complicated role for the keyboard; Avital and harpsichordist Weiss cleverly played up some obvious moments of that aspect of the piece, which on the whole resembles Beethoven’s shorter variations for piano in mood and cleverness.
Although Avital took star billing, the finest moment of the evening arrived halfway through the second half when harpsichordist Weiss held the stage alone for an insightful and beautifully stylish rendition of four short works for harpsichord by eighteenth-century French composer Francois Couperin.
The concert had opened with Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K. 90, unusual in Scarlatti’s output in its four-part structure; the overlay of the metallic sound of the mandolin with the softer aura of the harpsichord simply didn’t work here, burdening Scarlatti’s lucidly lean two-voiced texture with a thick heaviness. Vivaldi’s Sonata in G minor for violin, lute, and continuo sorely missed the sustained lyricism of the violin; similarly, Bach’s Sonata in E minor, originally for flute and continuo, likewise wanted the sustained flow of the flute.
The most disappointing moment of the evening had arrived somewhat earlier, when Avital took on a mandolin transcription of the oft-transcribed masterpiece for solo violin, the Chaconne from the Partita in D minor. Although Avital achieved some impressive feats of voicing and some interesting timbrel effects, he slipped almost flippantly through the most profound moments in this musical monument. And, once again, the sustaining power of the violin was sorely missed. There must (or should) be a greater repertoire of music for mandolin—possibly even serious contemporary works—and there is surely a possibility for more meaningful and more carefully crafted transcriptions for the instrument. A wider range of tonalities in this D-centric program would also have enhanced the evening.