Classical music

Arts review: Avi Avital and the Cologne Academy Chamber Orchestra

Avital shows that the mandolin is not a classical instrument, but it’s still cool as folk

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 November, 2015, 3:53pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 November, 2015, 5:40pm

Few major composers have written specifically for the mandolin. The handful of virtuoso exponents play mostly folk music of one kind or another.

Avi Avital, however, is on a mission to have it taken more seriously as a classical instrument. New music is being written for him, but for the moment most of the available repertoire consists of transcriptions - his own among them - of music composed for other instruments, particularly the violin, with which the mandolin shares its tuning.

For his Hong Kong debut Avital chose to devote the first half of the concert to music by Bach and Vivaldi.

There was no faulting the playing of the Cologne Academy Chamber Orchestra, but Avital occasionally appeared to be stumbling through some of the faster passages.

He has recorded more technically accomplished performances of The Four Seasons and the Bach concertos, but up to the intermission he appeared to be struggling heroically with the technical limitations of his instrument rather than transcending them.

His playing in the second half of the programme was much more fluent and assured, but since it consisted mostly of folk tunes, albeit - with one exception - in arrangements by classical composers, that tended to confirm the prejudice that the mandolin is essentially a folk instrument.

He appears at world music festivals as well as in classical recitals, but this is probably not the impression he wanted to give.

Avital’s two unaccompanied solo performances - of Ernest Bloch’s Nigun from Baal Shem and of the Bulgarian folk tune Bucimis - were perhaps the most impressive of the night, but the mandolin also seemed much better suited to Bela Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances and to the excerpts from Sulkhan Fyodorovich Tsintsadze’s Eight Miniatures on Georgian Folk Tunes than it had to the baroque music of the first half of the concert.

Manuel de Falla’s Danse Espagnol from the opera La Vida Breve became popular as arranged for violin and piano by Fritz Kreisler, but has also been arranged as a duet for guitars.

After the concert I listened again to that arrangement, performed by John Williams and Julian Bream, and I couldn’t help thinking that on the mandolin it had sounded brittle and thin by comparison.

Avital is an articulate and engaging advocate for the mandolin, and probably plays it as well as it can be played in a classical context, but an extended programme of performances in which it is the featured instrument exposes its tonal limitations.

There are reasons why it is typically a second instrument for a violinist or guitarist, and they were apparent in the course of this evening.

Avi Avital and the Cologne Academy Chamber Orchestra

City Hall Concert Hall

Reviewed: November 2