The NOVA Guitar Duo: Nelly von Alven, guitar, and Luiz Mantovani, 8-string guitar
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 15, 2018
For the third evening in their series entitled “Le Partage de la Musique” (“The Sharing of Music”) Pro Musicis presented another superb concert, this time featuring the NOVA Guitar duo. The duo combines the considerable talents of German guitarist Nelly von Alven (on 6-string guitar) and Brazilian guitarist Luiz Mantovani (on 8-string or “Brahms” guitar). The whole may not always turn out to be greater than the sum of its parts, but with this pairing – in addition to their individual gifts – there is a oneness of musical thought which makes them a rare find.
The program itself was fresh and interesting, all twentieth-century repertoire including works by Ferdinand Rebay (1880-1953), Federico Mompou (1893-1987), Leo Brouwer (b. 1939), Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) and Manuel de Falla (1876-1946). One work was completely unfamiliar, the Grosses Duo for Two Guitars by Viennese composer Ferdinand Rebay (given its New York premiere), but the more familiar works felt fresh as well, thanks partly to the relatively new and versatile pairing of six and eight-string guitars.
Rebay’s Grosses Duo opened the concert with a movement showing the duo’s wide range – the first theme being intensely dramatic and the second being lilting and lyrical. The duo captured both moods vividly and with striking mutuality of conception. Though the work itself does not venture stylistically far from traditional Viennese romanticism (or even classicism), it contains much beautiful and dramatic material, artfully woven together into three substantial movements totaling about twenty-five minutes. Originally a piano sonata composed the composer’s student days in 1902. Rebay reworked it for guitar and Quintbass guitar (with a lower range) in 1942, but the work lends itself perfectly to being played on the instruments of the NOVA duo. It should be noted that Mr. Mantovani’s 8-string guitar is capable of an additional lower range as well as an additional upper range – so the possibilities for the NOVA Duo are nearly endless. One anticipates many years of this duo mining musical treasures. For now, though, one could hardly imagine Rebay’s Grosses Duo being played better. Especially lovely was the central movement, Variations on Schubert’s Morgengrüss (from Die schöne Müllerin), followed by a vigorous finale.
The compositions of Mompou are favorites of this reviewer, so three selections from his Canciónes y Danzas (Songs and Dances) were met with great eagerness. The NOVA Duo played No. 6, No. 2 (Dotze Cavallers – Galop de Cortesia), and No. 5, in that order, and they were exquisite. The slow songful phrases were lovingly shaped, and the Danzas were timed to perfection. This listener has loved these works as piano pieces so was prepared to battle a bit of a bias there, but with both performers so clearly capable of singing lines and with the “Brahms guitar” particularly reverberant, one could not help embracing these transcriptions.
Continuing this beautifully paced program, the first half ended with two selections from Beatlerianas by Leo Brouwer, both composed in 2010. The first one, The Fool on the Hill, set the Beatles’ tune of the same name poignantly amidst a streaming accompaniment, to stirring effect. Penny Lane capped the first half off perfectly with contagious rhythms and some delightful bending of pitches, especially by Ms. Van Alven.
After intermission came music of Heitor Villa-Lobos, selections from his Cirandinhas, originally for piano. It feels like an act of treason for this pianist-reviewer to suggest that the set may possibly work better on two guitars, but – alas! – it seemed so on this occasion. These childlike miniatures take on just a bit more life with its lines being represented by multiple instruments, adding contrasting texture and color. From the playful Zangou-se o Cravo com a Rosa (“The Carnation was Angry with the Rose”) to the sad Adeus, Bela Morena (“Goodbye, Beautiful Morena”), and the rambunctious Vamos Manhina (“Let’s Go, Little Sister”), the Nova Duo captured the array of scenes to a tee. Cae, Cae, Balão (“Come Down, Come Down, Balloon”) had a reeling quality, and Todo O Mundo Passa (“Everybody Passes By”) resumed steadiness with an evocative march-like movement. Carneirinho, Carneirão (“Little Sheep, Big Sheep”) was a delightful study in contrasts, well projected by the duo, and Nesta Rua Tem um Bosque with its soulful melody over a chromatic bass, captured an exotic street garden. The set concluded with Lindos Olhos Que Ela Tem (“What Beautiful Eyes She Has”), a hypnotic serenade played to perfection.
To cap off the evening, we heard selections from El Amor Brujo of de Falla. Though one is quite accustomed to selections of this work being played on the piano, particularly the Danza ritual del fuego (or Ritual Fire Dance), they all worked quite well for guitars in the skillful hands of the NOVA Duo. We heard Introdución y Pantomima, Danza del Terror, and Romance del Pescador – all played with tremendous color – including breathtaking pianissimo shadings at times. The ensemble had something greater than split-second timing – it was simultaneity. A media noche: Los Sortilegios with its repeated midnight tolling led to a finale worthy of its name, Ritual Fire Dance, played with fierce intensity. Bravo!
An enthusiastic audience, sizable for such a snowy evening, brought the duo back onstage for several curtain calls. The pair offered a gently lyrical Brazilian encore, of which the name was not quite discernible.
It strikes this reviewer now that there has hardly been a critical word in this review. Well, why tamper with something so good? This pair is clearly meant to play, and they do so exceptionally well. If one had to make any suggestion, it would be simply to continue with this versatile instrumentation, enjoying -with discrimination, of course – being “kids in the candy store” of music literature. Encore!