“This is how I want to make music!” That was Avi Avital’s reaction when he first saw Il Giardino Armonico and Giovanni Antonini play live in Jerusalem. Now famed worldwide for his own charismatic and passionate performances, the mandolinist is delighted to be joined by this exciting period-instrument ensemble and its conductor and co-founder on his latest album, entitled simply Concertos. Together they perform three original concertos for mandolin – by Barbella, Paisiello and Hummel – and Avital’s own adaptations of concertos by J.S. Bach and Vivaldi. Antonini is the recorder soloist in the Bach, while elaborate recording techniques allow Avital to play all four parts in the Vivaldi. Concertos is set for release by Deutsche Grammophon on 17 November. The Vivaldi concerto and the Andantino of the Barbella are available to stream or download now, while excerpts from the Paisiello and Hummel works will be released on 29 September and 27 October respectively.
Avi Avital was a young student at the Jerusalem Music Academy when he was, to use his own word, “dragged” by a Baroque enthusiast friend to an Il Giardino Armonico concert. “It was a truly formative experience,” he recalls. “Everything about them was different – they played Vivaldi with such physical energy and power of expression.” Now, on Concertos, the ensemble partners Avital in what he says is probably his favourite Vivaldi concerto: RV 580 in B minor, originally for four violins.
The mandolinist had long cherished a “clear vision” of how he wanted to perform this work. Given recent technological advances, he and Antonini decided to experiment with multitrack recording to enable him to play all four parts in his adaptation of the concerto. Avital ended up using four different mandolins – and two mandolas – in this showstopping interpretation, enabling each voice to have a different colour and character. “I’m extremely proud of the result,” he says. “I feel we managed to create the feeling of a live performance in which the soloists are communicating with each other.”
Avital’s second adaptation transforms J.S. Bach’s well-known Concerto for violin and oboe, BWV 1060R into a “lighter and brighter” version for mandolin and recorder. Rehearsing and recording the work, notes the artist, led to all the musicians involved reformulating the way they thought about the concerto. His fellow soloist here is none other than Giovanni Antonini – a virtuoso recorder player and flautist. Avital’s inclusion of this work is part of his “lifelong mission” to record as much of the composer’s music as possible, and extends his existing DG Bach discography.
Of this recording’s three original works for Avital’s instrument, two come from Naples, the city synonymous with the sound of the mandolin. As the artist points out, Neapolitan culture was, and is, full of colour, emotion and theatricality, and these qualities are mirrored in the E flat major Concerto attributed to Giovanni Paisiello – stylistically worlds apart from the Vivaldi. “We invented our own dramatic narratives for this concerto during rehearsals,” he says. “You’re invited to imagine your own story when you listen to it.”
Fellow Neapolitan composer Emanuele Barbella, 20 years Paisiello’s senior, also composed vibrant, picturesque music, including incidental works for commedia dell’arte performances. He wrote a number of pieces for mandolin, among them the concise but striking D major Concerto on this album. Its central Andantino, observes Avital, has the feel of a Neapolitan love song.
His fifth and final choice of concerto is a work by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, better known in his day as a brilliant pianist than as a composer. His music is more traditional than that of his friend and rival Beethoven but, notes Avital, was written with the performer and concert experience in mind. Hummel’s G major Concerto is full of humour and drama, based on his knowledge of what would win over Viennese audiences. It was composed for the Italian virtuoso Bartolomeo Bortolazzi, who helped rescue the mandolin from artistic obscurity in the early 19th century.
The parallel between Bortolazzi’s achievements and those of Avi Avital are clear. In Avital’s hands, the mandolin is back at the heart of classical music, its repertoire reinvigorated and expanded thanks to his tireless efforts in reviving neglected pieces, creating adaptations of works originally written for other instruments, and commissioning new music from many of today’s leading composers.