Chris Thile, the celebrated mandolin player from The Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek isn’t the first popular musician to cross over into classical music, but he might be the only one who has done it successfully. Genre-jumping of any kind is an extremely risky venture, and you don’t have to look very far to find examples of artists who have failed miserably when they’ve attempted to deviate from their established styles and images. Thankfully, these performances of Bach’s solo violin pieces arranged for the mandolin are so subtle, uplifting and accomplished that they should have the opposite effect and add to Thile’s already considerable reputation as one of the finest young string players on the circuit today.
For those who have followed Thile’s career, this recording of Bach partitas shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Over the years, Thile has collaborated with other classical musicians, most notably the young violin prodigy Hilary Hahn whose own 2003 recording of Bach’s sonatas and partitas set a very high bar for the mandolin player to reach for. This is essentially what distinguishes Thile’s foray into classical music from those of other established musicians like Sting and Paul McCartney. Sting’s album, Songs from the Labyrinth, which featured interpretations of ancient lute music from John Dowland, had some beautiful moments, but the technical demands of Dowland’s music—as lovely as it is—are not comparable to those one needs to approach Bach. Similarly, McCartney’s original classical works are essentially orchestrated versions of the type of melodies he’s written for the last 50 years and could hardly be considered challenging for the listener.
Chris Thile was clearly looking for something different with this recording because if he simply wanted to extend his credibility, he could have picked some simpler, less challenging compositions to work with. Sting and Paul McCartney could rely on lush orchestration and arrangements to bolster their attempts at performing classical music, but the partitas and sonatas that Thile interprets were conceived as solo pieces for a single instrument that have long been considered a test of a player’s ability and understanding. There is simply nowhere for a musician to hide in such stripped down, stark, yet technically demanding compositions. This music is as naked as it gets, and any performance comes down to you, God and your instrument.
But, that doesn’t seem to bother Chris Thile a bit as he jumps into each one of these pieces to wring every nuance out of the slow passages and play the shit out of the faster sections. There’s perhaps no better example of Thile’s dexterity than in his performance of the presto (quick) section of the “Sonata in G minor IV.” It’s an incredibly demanding piece that requires precision and lightning reflexes to illuminate the melody and perfectly balanced counterpoints hinted at in the subtext. In addition to executing an accurate reading of the piece, Thile goes beyond the text to draw out the sense of play as well as the musical caprices and humor that are rarely heard in solemn, straight-faced performances of Bach’s music.
Bach: Sonatas and Partitas Volume 1 is clearly a labor of love rather than a plea for respect. By sticking very close to Bach’s original transcriptions of these compositions, Thile has recorded an album that should stand up to scrutiny in the classical music community without sacrificing his original style or approach to his instrument. He’s proven that he’s up to the task of rendering this incredibly complex music as well as showing—especially in the faster sections—that the distance between baroque and bluegrass is shorter than we may previously have thought. Each style of music is so technically demanding, yet incredibly nuanced that mere virtuosity is not enough to play it convincingly. Hopefully, this is the first of many classical recordings from Chris Thile. At the very least, it would be wonderful to hear a series of variations of these Bach pieces that allowed Thile to really stretch out and explore many of the improvisations that are suggested within the original music.
Bach: Sonatas and Partitas Volume 1 is beautifully played and uplifting to listen to from beginning to end. Every one of the pieces on this CD sounds perfectly at home interpreted for the mandolin. People who don’t think they like classical music might be surprised by how great it sounds when they hear it played by Chris Thile.