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It sounds like the sort of question Paul Gambaccini might pose to the contestants on Counterpoint, the BBC Radio 4 music quiz. “How many strings are there in a trio formed of mandolin, guitar and harp?”
In the case of sixty1strings, founded in 2013 to create an ensemble of plucked string instruments to complement more established chamber ensembles such as the string quartet, the answer is self-evident. Guitarist Negin Habibi, harpist Konstanze Kuß and mandolinist Ekaterina Solovey (the latter joined the ensemble in 2015) are clearly dedicated to revealing the full coloristic and textural spectrum of this unusual trio of instruments, highlighting the individual ‘voice’ and character of each while also exploring new sounds made possible through complementary combinations. Needless to say, the designated repertoire is not exactly vast, so for this debut album the three musicians have sought out works in the piano and orchestral repertoires, testing ‘their pluckability’ and producing their own transcriptions. They also work with contemporary composers to initiate new compositions.
Their project began, however, with an ‘original’: Hans Werner Henze’s Carillon, Récitatif, Masque, which they describe as the ‘best-known’ work scored for these instruments’ – an adjective which set me off on a search for other ‘less well-known’ original compositions for this ensemble. Other than Goffredo Petrassi’s Seconda Serenata (1962) I drew a blank, though did I uncover some unusual instrumental combinations such as Luimen by Elliot Carter (1997, for trumpet, trombone, vibraphone, mandolin, guitar, and harp). I also discovered that sixty1strings are not alone in their mission. The C Barré Plucked Trio are involved in The (plucked) Strings Theory Project, commissioning and performing new works for this unusual instrumental ensemble, while Israeli mandolinist Avi Avitar performs music for this combination with his eponymous trio.
Listening to Carillon, Récitatif, Masque – which began life as early-morning television background music – one immediately understands why Henze thought this trio of voices would be fruitful sonic intimates, and appreciates just what a superb palette-tantaliser Henze himself was. Carillon chimes and jangles, twangs and slithers, with a suave lilt, first echoing then whispering. The sound-clouds bloom like puffs of magic dust. When Habibi’s guitar takes the melodic lead, high harp and mandolin interject a tautly sprung commentary, and the musical conversations become ever more fragmented and unearthly, finally disappearing abruptly into air. The brief Récitatif is a beautifully tender embrace of soft sonic reflections. Masque has a clanging neo-Baroque brittleness driven by a tense ostinato, but is almost gone before one knows it, and lasts just as long as it should.
Most of the other compositions on the disc are either new works or are transcriptions of late-Romantic or Impressionist repertoire – understandable choices, perhaps, given the expansion of pianistic techniques and orchestral timbres during this period. sixty1strings state that they don’t want to ‘clothe [these transcriptions] in new garments’, rather to emphasise ‘certain colours of these garments’.
France is represented by Saint-Saëns, Debussy and Ravel. ‘Aquarium’ from Carnival of the Animals which opens the disc bathes the listener in a rippling, bubbling swell of oscillating soundwaves. The spaciousness created by the juxtaposition of high tinkling mandolin and sonorous guitar is unnerving and mesmerising – it’s easy to feel as if one is drowning! Debussy’s Danse sacrée and Danse profane were composed for Gustave Lyon’s newly invented chromatic harp and string orchestra, though the composer also made a reduction for piano duet. In this transcription, the former dance shines with a bewitching oriental gleam, and the harp acquires a powerfully dynamic propulsive role. Danse profane has a charming lightness, its waltz swirling insouciantly, brushes of colour and bristling reverberations offering excited breaths of promise and mystery. At times it’s hard to believe there are just three instruments playing, so rich and plush is the tapestry. ‘Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes’ from Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye suite tells the tale of a Chinese princess falling under the curse of an evil fairy who transforms her into an ugly little girl. The exiled ‘Laideronnette’ is rescued by a green serpent, with whom she falls in love, releasing her from the curse, and the pair live happily ever after on the island of the Pagodas. The musical narrative told here is just as compelling and satisfying.
From Spain comes Alberto Iglesias’s Hable con ella, composed for the soundtrack to Pedro Almodóvar 2002 film Talk to Her. It’s dreamy and atmospheric, flamenco merging with Moorish sensuality, all flickering mandolin and pungent guitar above the steady, smooth unrolling of the harp. Iglesias is a three-times Academy Award nominee for his scores for The Constant Gardener (2005), The Kite Runner (2007) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), and he certainly paints a telling mood-picture, but Hable con ella feels a bit directionless and ‘slight’. I found myself wondering, what might this trio make of de Falla, Albéniz, Turina et al? Joaquín Rodrigo’s Un tiempofue Itálica famosa Italica, an ode to a famous ancient Roman city situated near Seville, is both more substantial and more genuinely pensive: it also offers soloist Habibi an opportunity to demonstrate her nuanced interpretative acuity and dextrous virtuosity as she strokes the smoky wisps, flies through the flamenco-inspired scales with effortless fluency, and digs into the rhythmic grooves. The sense of barely restrained passion and sensuality is electric: this is pure musical enchantment. Of Ginastera’s three brief Danzas argentinas, it is the doleful mystery, and tantalising hints of fire, of the central ‘Danza de la moza donosa’ (Dance of the graceful maiden) that makes the strongest impression, though ‘Danza del gaucho matrero’ (Dance of the fugitive cowboy) whips up a toe-tapping whirl.
Boris Mikheev’s Seven Character Pieces were composed for the Russian folk mandolin, or four-string domra – Solovey’s original first study instrument at the Urals Mussorgsky State Conservatoire before she switched to major in mandolin performance. Never having come across Mikheev’s name, I could find absolutely nothing about him online, via Grove or other journal databases. The three ‘character studies’ presented by Solovey on modern mandolin, lasting barely two minutes each, have an improvisatory and incantatory quality, the impact of which belies their brevity. ‘Improvisation’ is especially captivating in its florid invention and incisive timbral insistence, while ‘Dancing’ is a tantalising invitation that almost cruelly teases and taunts with its twanging stridency and rhythmic persuasiveness, and closes nonchalantly, with wry inconclusiveness.
The disc ends with the titular Ambarabà (a reference to the Italian nursery rhyme Ambarabà ciccì coccò), which Walter Fähndrich originally composed for synthesiser. It’s a glistening kaleidoscopic fantasy, ‘based on a compositional formula that does not permit a single repetition but instead gives birth to a permanent metamorphosis’. I found it rather exhaustingly hyperactive.
I can appreciate sixty1strings’ desire to look to, and inspire and generate, the future; but having listened to and immensely enjoyed Ambarabà, I do hope that they look back too. The fine threads of a viola da gamba suite by Marais, or the intricacies of a Bach harpsichord fantasia, are surely ripe for the picking – or should that be plucking.
Contents Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) ‘Aquarium’ from Carnival of the Animals (1886) [3:08] Hans Werner HENZE (1926-2012) Carillon, Récitatif, Masque (1974) [10:36] Boris Mikheev (b. 1937) from Seven Character Pieces (1978)
‘Dancing’ [2:17] Alberto GINASTERA (1916-1983) Danzas argentinas Op.2 (1937)
Danza del viejo boyero [1:29]
Danza de la moza donosa [3:26]
Danza del gaucho matrero [3:54] Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Danse sacrée (1905) [5:04] Danse profane (1905) [5:42] Joaquín RODRIGO (1901-1999) Un tiempo fue Itálica famosa (1981) [8:52] Alberto IGLESIAS (b. 1955) Hable con ella (2002) [5:37] Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) from the Suite Ma mère l’oye (1908)
‘Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes’ [3:44] Walter FÄHNDRICH (b. 1944) Ambarabà (1994) [8:05]