The Modern Mandolin Quartet

Nutcracker Suite

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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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