Music review: Duo Mantar – Mandolin-Guitar Album ‘Music from the Promised Land’

Mantar Duo is an israeli mandolinist Jacob reuven and American guitarist Adam levin. Music from the Promised Land, their debut duo album, expresses two major threads of their work: a shared passion for Israeli music and Jewish songs, and a desire to expand and promote the repertoire for the relatively unusual association of chamber music between guitar and mandolin.

The album features music by seven Israeli composers. Most of the selections are world premiere recordings or premieres of arrangements for mandolin and guitar. So there are a lot of things here that you have never heard, even though you are familiar with your Israeli composers, which I was not. I hear the album as something like an illuminated manuscript, showing and telling the stories of Jewish and Israeli music from the 20th and 21st centuries, some in modernist fashions, some with roots in folk dances. (See my recent interview with Reuven and Levin.)

With wisdom, the duo welcomes us into their universe with the most accessible music on the album, starting with “3 Jewish Dances” by Marc Lavry, an instrumental figure in Israeli music even before Israel existed (he has immigrated to Palestine in 1935). The duo Mantar presents this trio of pieces dating from 1945 in a sparkling new arrangement by their collaborator Gregg Nestor. Nestor also designed the guitar-mandolin version of “3 Songs Without Words” by Paul Ben-Haim, another prominent figure in 20th century Israeli music.

While Lavry’s pieces expressly recall dances from different Jewish traditions, Ben-Haim’s (1952) “songs” have a more abstract genesis – although the third, “Sephardic Melody,” is based on a traditional folk tune. and uses the tremolo technique. familiar with Spanish folk music. Together, the six pieces offer a varied picture of compositional inspiration, from excited weddings to the calm of the desert.

“Oriental Pantomime”, Jan Friedlin’s first piece of Russian origin written for guitar and mandolin, envelops Stravinsky modernism with oriental flavors, with sustained tension and jerky dance rhythms. He offers a softer vibe with his new arrangement of “Mist Over the Lake”, a mellow 1980s composition that offers musicians the opportunity to show off their mastery of dynamics and sensitive playing, an opportunity they take full advantage of.


The duo are also comfortable with pre-existing works for mandolin and guitar, such as a sonata by Yehezkel Braun. The flow of melodic transfers in the three movements is almost strange. Filigree figures create the sound of every other instrument. When one takes the melody and the other the accompaniment, the balance is exquisite. And the rave-up which closes the last movement “Variatzione” has a determination à la Beethoven. Between the four hands of the Duo Mantar, the sonata shines with beauty and originality.

The most difficult piece to hear is also one of the most interesting. Josef Bardanashvili’s “The Memories” in one movement plays with our expectations by changing fashion and technique – industrial, fiery, pastoral – in search of a resolution that brings little comfort when it arrives. The duo once again displays a remarkable unison in the last minutes of this impressive opus.

The sentiment returns in Oren Lok’s “Ahava”, which develops intriguing complexities by drawing on the four notes that correspond in the musical alphabet to the Hebrew word spelling for “love”. The album ends with a Gregg Nestor arrangement of a tonic duo by Ittai Rosenbaum originally written for mandolin and piano.

The challenge for composers who write for mandolin and guitar is that in order to achieve the illusion of sustained notes and chords, they must rely on methods of repetition, such as the familiar American folk tremolo technique as well as the Spanish music. Reuven and Levin reward the efforts of these composers to maintain sound and energy by offering performances as moving as they are virtuoso.

At the same time, their album functions as an eclectic introduction to Israel’s already rich music tradition, performed by two of our best performers of this canon.

Music from the Promised Land releases June 11, 2021 on Naxos. Pre-order here.

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