Classical CD Reviews

BACH: Sonata No. 1 in G minor; Partita No. 1 in B minor; Sonata No. 2 in A minor – Chris Thile, mandolin – Nonesuch

We knew it was coming, so was it worth the wait? You bet it was!

Published on August 13, 2013

BACH: Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001; Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002; Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003 – Chris Thile, mandolin – Nonesuch 535360, 64:10 *****:

Chris Thile, for those who don’t know, began playing with his long-time friends Sara and Sean Watkins, at the age of eight. They eventually morphed into the band Nickel Creek, a progressive bluegrass ensemble that was always eclectic in its selection of music and could drift far afield from what many would consider “traditional” bluegrass.

But that was part of its attraction, enlivening a genre that too often evaded description and manifested an esoteric cult element about it that only connoisseurs could appreciate. Nickel Creek sought to change this, pairing up with artists and songsters as disparate as Alison Krause, Dolly Parton, and indie and folk rock influences. They would write music that interested them, reflected their own sometimes intensely held experiences, and came from a host of different sources. I was fortunate enough to attend one of their biggest audience concerts in 2007, the year they broke up, which now looks as though it might have been the last the world will ever hear them again. They are mourned, and mourned deeply.

But one thing was always clear—Chris Thile, early on the guitarist and then later mandolin player and lead vocalist, was clearly the major talent of the group, and it came as no surprise that he felt the need to stretch his wings. Currently he fills these same roles with the band Punch Brothers, and his collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, and Edgar Meyer, with whom he released last year’s The Goat Rodeo Sessions, which won two Grammys in 2013, is something of a landmark, especially as those artists are also involved in “classical” endeavors.

With his amazing virtuosity, many considering him now to be the greatest mandolin player in the world, Thile decided to turn his attention to Bach’s Violin Sonatas and Partitas. Apparently this should come as no surprise, for according to him Bach was an influence early in his life, especially Glenn Gould’s second recording of the Goldberg Variations replete with articulation and phrasing that Thile had only previously thought possible in non-classical music and performances. After that revelation Bach began to play an increasingly important part in his musical life, though at the time he was rather restricted in terms of performance.

Now he has that chance and is even touring with these pieces. But the idea is not to prove that Bach “works” for mandolin. No, this is an instrumentalist who happens to love Bach and his instrument is the mandolin. Thile says “This record to me is not about this iconic violin music played on the mandolin—like, ‘Oh boy, what fun, he’s playing a weird instrument!’ It’s about Bach being one of the greatest musicians of all time, the solo violin music being some of his best work, and the mandolin having the potential to cast it in a new and hopefully interesting light.” That it does for sure, but it’s not all so insulated from the goals and desires of the performer.

While I can say that these are completely orthodox readings fully in congruence with modern style and articulation, many of the tempos seem designed to show just what the mandolin—or Thile—can really do. Several movements are taken at blazing speeds, faster than I have ever heard a violinist play them, and the fact that he gets through it at that rate of passage is simply remarkable. So we do get to hear what a mandolin can do, and we do get to hear what an astonishingly mature and technically impeccable artist like Thile is capable of. And most of all, it all still fits within the scheme of acceptable Bach performance.

The Nonesuch sound is quiet and very detailed, and I think designed to be heard at a moderate level. Turn it up too much and you will miss the point altogether. But don’t miss this album. Like me, you will be enjoying it and counting the days until the second volume appears.

—Steven Ritter




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