Introducing Avi Avital

Avi Avital is a young man with big ideas and a very unusual instrument. Currently he looks set to become a new international superstar of the mandolin.

Avi Avital overflows with charm, intelligence and enthusiasm as he describes his dreams of bringing the mandolin to its widest audience yet. His debut album for Deutsche Grammophon is, he says, “a dream come true”. He has devoted it to the music of J.S. Bach, one of his greatest musical passions. The programme features his own transcriptions of concertos best known in their incarnations for harpsichord or violin, plus a beautiful flute sonata.

His story began in his home town of Be’er Sheva, Israel — where taking up the mandolin was not as unlikely a prospect as you might think. Mandolin orchestras were a popular form of social music-making in Europe in the earlier 20th century, especially in Italy and Poland; some of the refugees who escaped to Palestine before and during World War II brought the idea with them.

So how did Avi Avital find the mandolin? “Perhaps it found me”, he declares. “It was a complete coincidence. When I was eight years old, my parents thought it would be nice for me to go to a music school after normal school. A neighbour’s son was learning the mandolin, so I decided I would as well — and in our town there happened to be a youth mandolin orchestra that is very well known. I grew up playing in that orchestra. We used to meet every Friday for rehearsals and that’s where I really started to learn about music. We used to play all kinds of arrangements — Mozart, Bach and much more.”

The orchestra proved a formative influence: “It was founded by Simcha Nathansohn, an immigrant from the former USSR. He was a very charismatic teacher, but actually he was originally a violinist. This proved a great advantage, because he showed us that the music was more important than the instrument. I learned how to transmit music through an instrument — which just happens to be a mandolin.” All this was possible, of course, because the tuning of the mandolin’s strings is identical to that of the violin.

After attending the Jerusalem Academy of Music, Avi Avital went to Italy where he studied with Ugo Orlandi, “a real mandolin professor, with whom I learned the original repertoire of the mandolin, rather than the transcriptions of violin music I’d specialised in until then”. This music, however, he found “beautiful, but rather limited”. Avi Avital found himself facing what he describes as something of an identity crisis: the music he most loved to play was not necessarily that written for his own instrument.

Eventually he found his true direction: “One of my aims is to redevelop and redefine the mandolin and its repertoire”, he declares. “I’m inspired by the way Segovia transformed the classical guitar.”

How did he go about making his Bach transcriptions? “Both the harpsichord concertos on the album were probably written first for violin, though the scores were lost”, he says. “There are reconstructions for violin, and these feel organic on the mandolin — but the instrument sounds more like the harpsichord. My transcriptions fall somewhere between the harpsichord and violin versions, looking deep into the music to find out what it needs and what adaptations I can make. But the music goes far beyond the instrument. It is so absolute that I don’t really feel it has changed at all.

“One of my favourite tracks is the slow movement of the G minor Concerto. It has a divine melody — powerful yet not sentimental. I feel the mandolin creates a special intimacy here: the sweetness and purity of the sound seems to pluck on much more ancient strings within our souls.”

The Keyboard Concerto in D minor presents different questions: “It involves long sections written almost continuously in semiquavers/16th notes. But if you ‘zoom out’, you can hear the structure more clearly. It’s like an Impressionist painting where, close to, you notice all the brush strokes, but if you step back you can see the whole picture. From that perspective, it is a very broad piece, the drama is carried over very long phrases.”

The A minor Violin Concerto is perhaps the most natural of all these pieces for the mandolin, given its closeness to the violin: “You need to be creative with how to play a long note, how to make it sing, how to play ornaments, and so on. The main issue with this piece, though, is that it is so well known. The challenge is to make it sound fresh. We approached it by imagining we were encountering the music for the very first time.”

The Flute Sonata in E minor completes the disc, and for Avi Avital it is an old favourite. “I’ve long been enchanted by this piece”, he says. “When I was 18, I received a last-minute invitation to play it in a live radio broadcast, with just one week to prepare. That felt like a week-long meditation: instead of finding it stressful, I lived so much inside the music that it became a real joy. The flute is a very different instrument — the phrases emerge from the breathing. Playing the piece on the mandolin, you almost have to breathe in the same way as a flautist.”

Avi Avital plays a mandolin made by Arik Kerman, with whom he has been working closely: their objective is to develop the instrument, giving it the capability to project a wider repertoire in modern concert halls. “I would play the instrument, then go back and tell him what I felt it needed — more bass, more volume, a greater variety of colours, etc.”, says Avi Avital. “The result has a wonderful range that we don’t usually find in the original Neapolitan baroque mandolins.”

Above all, for Avi Avital it is always the music that comes first: the instrument is just a tool with which to express it. Throughout the album — recorded in Berlin (where he now lives) with the Kammerakademie Potsdam — he aims “to underline the universality of Bach’s music”.

“Bach’s music is full of secrets”, he says. “No matter how long you’ve been playing it, there is still something to discover every time. And using a different instrument allows you to hear it in a whole new way.”
Jessica Duchen