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Rob Maynard
MusicWeb International, April 2011

With some justice, the 1970s are often dismissed as the decade that Style forgot.

But while it’s true that many of us would prefer never again to contemplate the likes of platform shoes, hotpants, bell-bottom trousers and Brotherhood of Man, one icon of middle class culture from that generally unlamented decade remains with us to this day—the dinner party.

Today the 1970s dinner party is easy to caricature: prawn cocktail, chicken in a brick (the latter bought from the local Habitat store) and Black Forest gateau—all washed down with a bottle or two of trendy Blue Nun. And there was always some music playing quietly in the background—not, unless you were very unlucky, from Brotherhood of Man but something selected to indicate the host’s cultural sophistication. And surprisingly often, as I recall from the Hampstead and Highgate dinner party circuit of the time, that was a Turnabout LP of Vivaldi lute and mandolin concertos performed by Anton Stringl (lute), Paul Grund and Artur Rumetsch (mandolins) and the Württemberg Chamber Orchestra under Jörg Faerber.

Yes, with all due respect to its devotees everywhere, the mandolin made—and continues to make—ideal background music and I’m not sure that many people will listen to this new CD with the rapt concentration that they’d give to a Beethoven string quartet or a piano recital from Alfred Brendel. Indeed, a few listeners to whom I’ve played this disc had had quite enough after just a couple of tracks and others were frankly relieved to note its otherwise disgracefully short overall running time. But as a pleasant and undemanding diversion it more than fits the bill.

The 2003 line-up of the Modern Mandolin Quartet—Dana Rath and Matt Flinner (mandolins), Paul Binkley (guitar and mandola) and Gyan Riley (guitar and mandocello)—was clearly a very talented one. Their potted biographies indicate that the players came from backgrounds that encompass jazz, rock and folk as well as classical music but some details may leave more than a few…readers bemused—thus the booklet notes reiterate Bluegrass Now’s contention that “Flinner provides the next evolutionary step to David Grisman’s unique dawg style”.

In general, though, with just one exception, the quartet’s stylistic eclecticism is kept in check in these relatively straightforward musical arrangements. Miguel Llobet’s Four Catalan folksongs, none more than two minutes long, are simple and pleasant enough…

Things perk up somewhat with the Tchaikovsky where the delicacy of much of the orchestration adapts quite effectively to the mandolin. The Miniature Overture is vivacious and demonstrates the fine balance between the individual instruments established by the players—and the engineers? The March and Russian Dance are both executed in the most lively and attractive manner; the Dance of the Mirlitons works well; but the slower, more atmospheric tracks disappoint, with an Arabian Dance that misses the subtle sultriness of Tchaikovsky’s original and a distinctly heavy-footed sugar plum fairy. The undoubted highlight, not just of the suite but of the whole disc, is an account of the Waltz of the Flowers that goes with a real swing. The performers’ huge enjoyment is very obvious and this would bring the house down in any live performance.

The Delibes track is arranged in a way that suits the mandolins very effectively and the same is true of the Fauré, although sometimes the playing there is deliberate rather than dreamy. The Fauré track will, indeed, divide listeners. From about 3:40 we go, for the only time on the disc, into a distinctly jazzy and improvisatory mode for a couple of minutes: it’s not unpleasant at all—but it’s not Fauré either.

The Vivaldi D major concerto was one of those included on that old dinner party Turnabout LP. It is very attractive music, undemanding for the listener—if not the executants—and is well played here.

It was, in fact, so effectively evocative that, immediately after playing it, I was inspired to head for the kitchen and, just half an hour later, was tucking in to a plate of delicious Chicken Kiev accompanied by garlic mushrooms and washed down with a can or two of refreshing Harp lager.

James Manheim, December 2010

In the modern age this qualifies as a novelty, but a century ago an arrangement of classical favorites for mandolin quartet—two mandolins, a mandola, and a mandocello—would have been almost commonplace. The arrangements here are contemporary (several are by one of the mandolinists in the group, Paul Binkley), but the mandolin ensemble was long a fixture of American life. There were even mandolin orchestras. Three of the players here have classical backgrounds, while Matt Flinner is a progressive acoustic musician well known to bluegrass fans in the San Francisco Bay area, where this album was recorded. The test for such an album is whether it becomes a one-note joke, and in the central attraction, the arrangements of the familiar hits from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a, the Modern Mandolin Quartet passes the test. The mandolin instruments are cleverly deployed to suggest Tchaikovsky’s full orchestral textures, and the playing is tuneful and charming. No arranger is credited in the other major work on the program, the Concerto in D major for lute, two violins, and continuo of Vivaldi, and indeed the music is easily transferred to this format, but the sprightly playing here is reminiscent of the bluegrass/classical fusions undertaken by Chris Thile and other musicians. Complaints here are few: buyers might take this as a holiday item when in fact the Nutcracker Suite is the only holiday piece on the program, and the opening Four Catalan Folksongs by Miguel Llobet are trapped in bare arrangements that make them seem a bit too rhythmically regular. A fun item for mandolin lovers.

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