The mandolin is an odd instrument on which to build a solo performing career as a classical musician, but Avi Avital seems poised to do just that. Born in Israel and trained there and in Italy, he has experimented with crossover ventures, but his first solo album with Deutsche Grammophon, released this week, is devoted to transcriptions of Bach concertos.
As revealed at a concert Wednesday at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, Avital is an accomplished musician but will probably remain a specialty act. The mandolin’s sound had considerable charm, helped along by discreet but still slightly canned amplification, but it has limitations in holding the ear’s attention over a sustained period. It worked best in music closest to the instrument’s home repertoire, a revelatory performance of Bartok’s “Seven Romanian Dances.” Composed on the piano and later arranged for orchestra, these folk miniatures became hypnotic when arranged for the mandolin, the little dissonant inflections seeming to make perfect sense.
Three Baroque concertos had more varied success, with the mandolin best suited to Vivaldi’s D major concerto for lute, with some pleasing embellishments added by Avital. Two Bach concertos (BWV 1052 and 1056), originally for violin and oboe, had to be adapted from versions Bach made for harpsichord, and the translation to mandolin felt less natural. An accompanying ensemble of five string musicians mostly played at a level just above a whisper, and in many places one missed the harpsichord filling in the harmony of the continuo line. The overall effect is stronger on the recording, where the mandolin’s fragile sound could be artificially balanced with a more complete ensemble.
Avital replaced a planned Beethoven work with a fanciful arrangement of Ernest Bloch’s “Nigun” from “Baal Shem” and Avital’s composition “Kedma,” both a heartfelt nod to the venue’s origins. The appeal of these works was matched by the encore, Avital’s semi-improvisatory arrangement of a Bulgarian folk dance.
Downey is a freelance writer.