Duo Mantar is Israeli mandolinist Jacob Reuven and American guitarist Adam Levin. Music from the Promised Land, their debut album as a duo, 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 chamber music pairing of guitar and mandolin.
The album includes music by seven Israeli composers. Most of the selections are world premiere recordings, or premieres of arrangements for mandolin and guitar. So there’s a lot here you’ve never heard, even if you’re up on your Israeli composers, which I wasn’t. 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 modes, some with roots in folk dances. (See my recent interview with Reuven and Levin.)
Wisely, the duo welcomes us into their world with the album’s most approachable music, starting with “3 Jewish Dances” by Marc Lavry, an instrumental figure in Israeli music since before Israel existed (he immigrated to Palestine in 1935). Duo Mantar presents this trio of pieces dating from 1945 in a sparkling new arrangement by their collaborator Gregg Nestor. Nestor also crafted the guitar-mandolin version of the “3 Songs Without Words” of Paul Ben-Haim, another eminent figure in 20th-century Israeli music.
While the Lavry pieces expressly recall dances from different Jewish traditions, Ben-Haim’s “Songs” (from 1952) have a more abstract genesis – though the third, “Sephardic Melody,” is based on a traditional folk tune, and features the tremolo technique familiar from Spanish folk music. Together the six pieces offer a varied tableau of compositional inspiration, from excited nuptials to the quiet of the desert.
“Oriental Pantomime,” Russian-born Jan Friedlin’s first piece written for guitar and mandolin, cloaks Stravinsky-esque modernism in Eastern flavors, with sustained tension and jolting dance rhythms. He offers a softer mood with his new arrangement of “Mist Over the Lake,” a gentle composition from the 1980s that provides the musicians an opportunity to showcase their mastery of dynamics and sensitive interplay, an opportunity of which they take full advantage.
The duo is equally comfortable with pre-existing mandolin-and-guitar works, such as a sonata by Yehezkel Braun. The flow of the melodic hand-offs in the three movements is almost uncanny. Filigree-like figures creates the sound of one instrument out of two. When one takes the melody and the other the accompaniment, the balance is exquisite. And the rave-up that closes the final “Variatzione” movement has a Beethoven-like decisiveness. In Duo Mantar’s four hands the sonata shines with beauty and originality.
The piece that’s most challenging to the ear is also one of the most interesting. Josef Bardanashvili’s one-movement “The Memories” plays with our expectations as it shifts among modes and techniques – industrial, fiery, pastoral – searching for a resolution that brings little comfort when it arrives. The duo again displays remarkable unison in the closing minutes of this impressive opus.
Sentiment returns in “Ahava” by Oren Lok, which develops intriguing complexities as it builds on the four notes that correspond in the musical alphabet to the spelling of the Hebrew word for “love.” The album closes with a Gregg Nestor of arrangement of a bracing duet by Ittai Rosenbaum originally written for mandolin and piano.
The challenge for composers writing for mandolin and guitar is that to achieve the illusion of sustained notes and chords they must rely on methods of repetition, like the tremolo technique familiar from American folk as well as Spanish music. Reuven and Levin repay these composers’ efforts to sustain sound and energy by giving performances as soulful as they are virtuosic.
At the same time, their album works as an eclectic introduction to the already-rich tradition of music from Israel, as performed by two of our finest interpreters of this canon.
Music from the Promised Land is out June 11 2021 on Naxos. Pre-order here.