TDP Review: Chris Thile – “Bach Sonatas and Partitas 1”

For fans of: Classical, Bach, Genre Bending, Mandolin

Watching mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile play his instrument is mesmerizing.  His eyes close and his body predicts Thile-Bach-Square-1024x1004every sound that will erupt from his mandolin.  His brilliance for music lies in his passion for music and his instrument, not in any one genre.  Thile, a 2012 recipient of the MacArthur genius grant, has never been one to respect genre barriers; rather, he pushes himself to new unexplored terrain.  His music career began at the age of eight when Thile formed the later Grammy award winning band Nickel Creek with childhood friends.  Since then, his projects have ranged from traditional bluegrass with Michael Daves, playing with his progressive bluegrass band Punch Brothers, touring with Jazz Pianist Brad Mehldau, and recording a fusion of bluegrass and classical known as The Goat Rodeo Sessions with Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan.  Now, Thile attempts a new solo challenge as he releases an album of Bach sonatas and partitas on mandolin.

        The challenge with the endeavor is put nicely by Thile himself in an interview with PBS. Thile explains, “In bluegrass, a mistake can become the rightest thing you do…Not in Bach.” So what does the mandolin bring to the classical scene? Thile explains, “It’s so precise, painfully precise.  You have plastic pick hitting metal strings.  There is no doubt when the note happens.” The question then is: will Thile’s genius shine through the strict nature of Bach?

        The answer is absolutely.  The mandolin has the ability to pick up where violins, the instrument Bach originally wrote the sonatas and partitas for, leaves off.  Thile opens the album with “Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001 1. Adagio,” and immediately the listener hears the ring of the mandolin.  The space Thile allows between the notes is just as important as the actual notes being played, as it allows the rich tone of Thile’s mandolin to shine through.

        As Thile starts playing the second part to “Sonata No. 1, Fuga: Allegro,” the tempo picks up and the notes become more tightly condensed.  Here, it becomes clear what Thile meant when he said in terms of how precise the mandolin is.  Where, in my opinion, a violin can begin to sound convoluted through the rapid note change, the mandolin allows for each note to be showcased without being too blended with the next.  Probably the best example is on the eighth track of the album, “Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002: IV. Double: Presto.”  Despite the rapid succession of note after note creating an intricate melody, Thile allows each note to be as pronounced as the one before.

        Overall, the album is incredible.  The only thing more amazing than the sonatas and partitas is the feeling Thile brings to each piece.  Through the mandolin, Thile introduces Bach in a unique way where emotion is carried throughout.  As familiar to Bach as you may be, listening to Thile’s pieces will be like hearing Bach for the first time.  Not necessarily the best album for a rockin’ rager, but when mellow and classical are needed Chris Thile’s Bach: Sonatas & Partitas 1 delivers miracles.  Bring a new level of elegance to your playlists, BHS, and as always stay classy.

Overall rating: 5/5

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