Bach: Sonatas & Partitas, Vol. 1

Chris Thile

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Bach: Sonatas & Partitas, Vol. 1 Review

by James Manheim

This Bach release by progressive bluegrass mandolinist Chris Thile is one of the most widely publicized projects of its kind since the classical performances by jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis in 1990, or even, before that, since Barbra Streisand's Classical Barbra release of 1976; Streisand, like Thile (as part of the band Nickel Creek), was a former resident of the pop top 20, which Marsalis never reached. Thile has been a gleeful genre crosser whose efforts have ranged from post-bop jazz to alternative rock to Bach several times in the past. And the idea of playing Bach on a mandolin is not so radical in itself; other plucked stringed instruments played significant roles in his musical world. Thus there is no reason for Thile to treat this project as a novelty, and indeed he does not do so: his approach to Bach is serious. The ingenuity of these performances, which should appeal equally to Thile's longtime fans and to classical listeners with the slightest sympathy for crossover projects, is that he knows when to play it straight and when to adapt the music to the requirements of what he's doing here. The biggest departure from the score is the high speed of several of the fast movements that enable Thile to insert bluegrass-like runs into the music. Otherwise Thile keeps his tempos regular and his structures and articulation clear, with strong attacks from the mandolin filling the role of the violin's gutsy chords. He develops a repertoire of expressive devices to match the conventions of violin playing on which Bach drew; the quiet sound of the top of the mandolin's range, for instance, is very sensitively employed. Jeremy Denk, in his thoughtful booklet notes, characterizes the mandolin as "a harpsichord freed from its box," and Thile exploits this aspect of its sound nicely. You might complain that the program of this first volume, with two sonatas and one partita, does not make complete sense and was probably developed with an eye toward maximizing Nonesuch's profits from the eventual complete set. But otherwise this is an impressive job by a child-prodigy instrumentalist who has accomplished the very difficult task of continuing to challenge himself in productive ways as an adult.

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