Album Review: Avi Avital – Bach

Maria Le Brun is refreshed by Avi Avital’s take on Bach…

Bach for mandolin? I was intrigued by this unusual combination and when I interviewed Avi Avital, he proved to be an equally fascinating personality.

As he puts it ‘the Mandolin offers a fresh perspective of Bach’s music. Because we all know this music and have it in our ears, the special sound of the Mandolin can offer a different lens’. The enthusiasm Avital has for this music translates into a vitality of sound which shines through on his album. I agree that the unfamiliar sound of the mandolin allows us to hear Bach in a new way.

Avital is trying to transform popular opinion of the mandolin as a folk instrument by bringing it to the concert hall. Undeterred by the lack of original repertoire for the instrument, he has arranged all of the tracks for the album himself and also commissioned many new works. I think Bach is an interesting choice for the album given Avital’s dream, because the universal appeal of this music will certainly help bring the instrument to a wider audience. However, it also seems a bit risky given the current vogue for ‘authentic’ performance practices. Nevertheless, Avital’s passion for Bach music itself swayed me.

He explained that, ‘this project had nothing to do with philology or trying to play Bach as he would have heard it because Bach didn’t write for the mandolin: there is nothing here to try to prove that this music was originally written for the mandolin. The message in this album is quite different: it says I have a lot of respect for Bach’s music and the way in which it was written but I’m underlining a different message here which is much more universal rather than a purist way of interpreting Bach. That said, the language of Baroque rhetoric was very important for me so I was looking for an orchestra which would be flexible enough to play in a proper Baroque style but with modern tuning.’ The sound of Kammerakademie Potsdam is of an agile Baroque orchestra because they play with Baroque bows and gut A strings. They are a sensitive accompaniment to Avital’s brilliant sound on the modern mandolin and allow him to come through even in the most contrapuntally dense sections. The delicately struck balance between soloist and orchestra is testament to Avital’s sound design and sophisticated transcription- ‘a big technical and intellectual challenge’ in itself he admits.

The album is very much a meeting of the old Baroque world and newer sounds such as modern tuning and the timbre of the mandolin. Avital cites influences as diverse as Gustav Leonardt, Hilary Hahn and Glenn Gould for Bach repertoire and his musical training is equally unusual – he grew up in Israel playing in a 30 piece mandolin ensemble led by a Russian violinist and later studied in Italy. All these elements contributed to a unique performance – the sweet lyricism of the Largo of the Concerto in F Minor must have come from Italy. I can’t help but be convinced by Avital’s performance; despite what the purists of the early music movement might think. Bach himself was always transcribing and reworking pieces by other composers in pursuit of the joy of the music itself and Avital unashamedly follows in his tradition.