The Nutcracker Suite (Windham Hill )
Modern Mandolin Quartet
Vienna Nocturne (North Star Records)
The Mair-Davis Duo and Friends

By John Goodin

These two recent releases represent the state of the art in American classical mandolin chamber music. The "classical" mandolin (a term about as useful as "country" music) refers mostly to a collection of attitudes and technical approaches to playing the instrument that, in Kentucky, will always be associated with Bill Monroe and his "bluegrass" invention. In Japan, Australia, and most European countries there are classical mandolin subcultures with distinct ideas about playing the mandolin. While the United States has a century of tradition, there are only a few hundred people today following this particular path to mando-enlightenment. In short, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince have nothing to fear from the classical mandolin world, but persons with open ears and some affection for the mandolin are in for a treat with these recordings.

The Mair-Davis Duo has issued several excellent recordings and Vienna Nocturne is equal to their best work. Marilyn Mair plays the mandolin beautifully and authoritatively and Mark Davis is a classical guitarist (another confusing use of the term "classical") of great technical skill and interpretative ability. The mandolin is generally the lead voice here and Marilyn's sound never fails to please. These are not carelessly thrown together performances but reflect serious thought about how this music might sound best. In the Duo, Mark's role is often that of an accompanist and he never gives the impression that he is being asked to do something distasteful by merely supporting the soloist.

I will admit to a little concern when I heard the title of this release. I immediately imagined a long string of Stauss waltzes and was happy to discover only one of these on the record. In fact, "Artist's Life Waltz" is the closing number and a real highlight, featuring the Duo and all of their "friends," Theodore Arm (violin), Mary Lou Rylands (cello) and Susan Thomas (flute). The nearly 70 minutes of music on this CD contain compositions by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn and other Viennese composers. Twelve of the nineteen movements feature the Duo alone, while the other seven include either violin, flute or cello. The program is well-planned and -paced. The listener can pay serious, careful attention to this disc and be rewarded accordingly or can use it (and let's be honest, most of us do this sometimes) for high-quality background music while reading or impressing friends.

The Modern Mandolin Quartet has recorded their arrangements of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite," Mozart's Overture from the Magic Flute, the Winter section from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" (with Ransom Wilson on flute), and Winter's Chill, a piece by bassist extraordinaire Edgar Meyer, for their third release on the Windham Hill label. It is a bold, triumphant move. Mike Marshall (of David Grisman and Montreux renown, mandolin 1), Dana Rath (mandolin 2), Paul Binkley (mandola, guitar) and John Imholz (mandocello) are demanding attention from the classical critical establishment by recording these very popular compositions.

The Quartet plays like one big mandolin and the effect can be nearly overwhelming when they are in high gear. There are some non-classical roots (an obvious familiarity with jazz and bluegrass) in evidence, yet the arrangements and playing are very legitimate. This is not a pop-music approach to some classical war-horses but a serious attempt to present them in a new light. The performances are bravura and the recording quality is pristine. Edgar Meyer's composition suggests the possibility of more modern, original mandolin quarter music to come. This release is an excellent way to either rediscover some beautiful music in new arrangements or to hear some great "classical" music for the first time.

In short, anyone who enjoys the sound of the mandolin will be thoroughly pleased with both of these recordings. Either CD or cassette would make an excellent hoiday gift and both could be given as a State of the Art package. (Windham Hill records are widely distributed but you might have to ask around to find North Star products).