Skills. Don’t try and fiddle with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach without them. As one of the most technically-demanding composers in the history of music, it is instantly evident to the ear if a musician is pussyfooting about with the Baroque kingpin. That’s why American mandolin player Chris Thile had his plate full when he decided to tackle Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas.
Comprised of six works written for the violin in 1720, Bach used the pieces as a way to thoroughly explore the full range of sounds for the instrument. Sure, it’s a different instrument in Baroque days, but as pianist Glenn Gould proved with Bach, it’s the strength of feeling in the playing that counts, not the instrument.
Step up former 32-year-old Nickel Creek mandolinist and singer Thile. For his first (of two) instalments of Bach’s solo violin pieces, he’s lining them up chronologically, starting with Sonata No. 1, followed by Partita No. 1 in B minor, and finally Sonata No. 2. His playing is immaculate and considered. Recorded by long-standing Yo-Yo Ma cohort and bassist Edgar Meyer, the sound is clean yet roomy, with microphones closely capturing the lovely natural sound of Thile’s mandolin.
However, it doesn’t take long to diagnose a major problem. The eight-stringed mandolin is a very brittle and plucky sounding instrument compared to the violin. And there is no bow to drag across the strings to create complex sonorities. Listen to the opening bars of the first movement of Thile’s Sonata No. 1 back-to-back with violinist Jascha Heifetz’s 1935 EMI version and you can hear just how long Heifetz can sustain the notes, while Thile is stuck having to pluck extra strings to create the same resonance. While there is nothing wrong with Thile’s playing – despite being perhaps a bit slow in this movement – it shows there are problems with the capabilities of the mandolin itself. As this sonata was later reworked by Bach for the lute (in the same family of instruments as the mandolin), it’s an issue he would have been familiar with. It certainly doesn’t diminish the interest in the music.
But as the 60-minute disc unfolds it starts to feel as though the repetitive and clinical precision that is required of Thile’s the plucked mandolin ends up suffocating the bigger musical picture. Thankfully, there are some fireworks. Notably, where Bach requires a dramatic increase in tempo such as in the final movement of the piece as it sees Thile even the score with the violin as the barrage of notes actually seems to come out more clearly in Thile’s quick-fingered approach. This is the moment where he succeeds and his technical ability transcends the rigours of the music by letting the notes truly sing.
The third movement ‘Fuga’ of Bach’s Sonata No. 2 allows Thile to show that he can handle the demand of Bach’s counterpoint madness with aplomb as he radiates a joyous playfulness with his fast picking. High points like this may be isolated, but they demonstrate that Thile is equal to his remarkable and ambitious undertaking. Whether the second volume expands on this achievement remains to be seen, but Thile now must be considered one of the contemporary masters of the mandolin.
This article was amended to remove an erroneous reference to Bela Fleck.