Chris Thile Plays Bach

Chris Thile

Bach, Sonatas and Partitas, Vol.1

Nonesuch CD/LP/Digital

Why Chris Thile Playing Bach on the Mandolin is a Good Idea

(A gentle rejoinder to performance practice purists)

 

1- Attack and decay

The Partitas, three of which are played by Thile on his latest Nonesuch disc, were probably originally played on the violin. But harpsichord looms large in Bach’s chamber music. Like the harpsichord, mandolin also has a sharp attack and quick decay. There are a number of correspondences between the timbre and fleetness of the two instruments that one probably wouldn’t capture if they played the Partitas on, say, clarinet.

 

2- Melismas

 

Both baroque chamber works and bluegrass instrumental music share an affinity for melismatic passages (layperson language: lots of fast runs). Anyone who has heard Thile play a solo with Punch Brothers knows how cleanly he can execute fast passage work, sometimes dizzyingly fast passage work. Listening to the Nonesuch disc, it is clear that Thile even upped the ante; he practiced his tuckus off.

 

3- Edgar Meyer

 

One of Thile’s frequent collaborators, the composer and bassist Edgar Meyer produces this recording. He is also one of those who spearheaded the bluegrass/classical crossover phenomenon in the 1990s, writing for and encouraging colleagues ranging from Bela Fleck to Yo-Yo Ma to explore the fertile vein of American roots music in a “classical” context. Meyer has also recorded Bach. He “gets” how Bach and modern folk stringed instruments fit together.

 

4- Bela Fleck

 

Banjo player Fleck has recorded Bach’s music too, focusing on the Inventions. Didn’t this open the door for a mandolinist to try his hand at recording some JSB? Why should Fleck get to have all the fun?

 

5- This Isn’t a Lark … or a Stopgap

 

Unlike some classical crossover projects, which serve as catalogue placeholders or a means to cash in on one the few quasi-lucrative subgenres in the classical recording industry, it is clear that Thile is passionate about this project and humbled by the material he is assaying. In a live video posted on YouTube, after playing a selection by Bach, Thile says that Bach is a tough act to follow with one of his own songs. It’s a joke he often shares in interviews; the jocular self-deprecation contains a great deal of humility.

 

6- Vol. 1

 

This also isn’t just a one off. Thile plans to record all of the Sonatas and Partitas on Nonesuch.

7- Tempo and Lightness

 

Bach is often transcribed for instruments that weren’t prevalent in interpreting his music during his lifetime. Many of us first encountered Bach in translation – played on the piano instead of the harpsichord. Pianos existed during Bach’s lifetime, but he was “old school” in his choice of keyboards: he preferred harpsichord and, above all, clavichord. There is a famous story that illustrates this. Late in his life, Bach travelled to visit his son at Frederick the Great’s court. After having Bach play on his extensive collection of pianos, Frederick offered to give him a piano-forte to take with him. Bach declined, indicating that he preferred his harpsichord at home. (I think this may have had as much to do with carting it home on unpaved roads through a war zone, but that’s just my own suspicion).

 

While there have been a great many influential interpretations of Bach’s music by pianists – and I don’t seek to assail them here – there is a presto tempo that some movements of the Partitas seem to require, with a lightness of texture and touch, that is quite difficult to obtain. It isn’t so much about the metronome marking at which one can play all of those sixteenths and thirty-seconds, but the limpid fluidity of their utterance, that makes these sections of the Partitas succeed. Thile on the mandolin can achieve this delicate fleetness where many pianists have not.

 

8- Lute

 

While we on are the subject of transcription, Bach himself transcribed his own music (and others) for a variety of forces. We hear his violin Partitas played on the lute: why not his partitas on another plucked stringed instrument?

 

9 – Mandolin isn’t just a Folk/Bluegrass Instrument

 

We most often associate mandolin with vernacular styles of music: folk, country, rock, and bluegrass. But it has appeared in a number of pieces of Twentieth Century and contemporary classical music. Witness Gabriel Faure’s Verlaine setting Mandoline. Even Schoenberg used it, in his Opus 24 Serenade. Dare we hope for Chris Thile to record some Schoenberg? (I’m half kidding, but I bet he could make it work!)

 

10 – Historical Accuracy vs. Historically Informed Performance

 

Truth be told, none of us are hearing Bach’s solo instrumental works as he heard them performed. Most often, they were heard in an intimate setting, a small room, not in a recital hall, not in a formal concert with the etiquette (and ticket prices) of today, and certainly not on a recording. We are both fortunate to live in a time where we are able to turn on a Bach recording anywhere, and impoverished that Bach’s music has become cultural shorthand – for a formality and canonical type of thinking he likely wouldn’t have recognized. And perhaps this is why Chris Thile’s Bach performances get some of the purist crowd up in arms.

 

Thile does no violence to the aesthetic in which Bach’s music was conceived; indeed he is quite dutiful in executing the material. Perhaps some of the purists aren’t reacting to Thile’s performances, but the milieu in which he performs Bach. Thile presents sonatas and partitas alongside bluegrass tunes, solo originals, and covers of alt-rock songs by Radiohead. He plays Bach for crowds that hoot and holler when they are delighted. While he is playing, there may even be alcohol with hops (from a can!)  imbibed by the audience. No one, least of all Thile, wears formal attire, no one in a tuxedo is present. It goes to show, you can win a MacArthur Fellowship and there still will be naysayers.

 

11 – Brubeck, Carlos, Swingle, and others

 

Haven’t we been through this phenomenon before? Bach played by Dave Brubeck in front of college kids, Walter/Wendy Carlos playing Bach on a Moog synthesizer, Ward Swingle arranging Bach excerpts for the Swingle Singers and a jazz combo; at one time or another, all of these approaches to J.S.B.’s music have been viewed as heretical violations of the canon. It is due to the resiliency of Bach’s oeuvre that new types of arrangements are of his works are made and that they work. Notice that other great composers’ works wouldn’t hold up to this type of treatment. Bruckner hasn’t had many synthesizer albums made of his Te Deum. Grieg’s Piano Concerto would be an unlikely candidate for a jazz meditation. Partly due to the evolving instrumentation of the baroque scoring giving artists a sense of permission, and partly due to a performance practice that, as we’ve pointed out, has included transcription for decades, Bach will continue to be reinvented and reinterpreted in a host of ways. Relax, sit down, and enjoy. Or, if mandolin doesn’t float your boat, reach for one of the many easily available harpsichord renditions of the Partitas.

 

12- Outreach

 

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in the news media and at arts organizations about “outreach.” Who will be the audiences of tomorrow? Is classical music dying? How will we get the young people to love music when all that they seem to listen to involves twerking? You want to hear great music, played authentically, that works as artistic outreach to new audiences? It’s on this recording.

 

 

File Under ?’s Best of 2012: Rangell and Schiff’s Bach CDs

Bach: The Art of Fugue
Andrew Rangell, piano
Steinway & Sons CD

 

Bach: Das Wohltemperiete Clavier
András Schiff, piano
ECM Records CD

Those who read this site likely already know that I have a soft spot for well performed renditions of J.S. Bach’s music. That said, I’ve seldom felt as strongly about a recording of The Art of Fugue that employs piano instead of harpsichord or ensemble as I do about Andrew Rangell’s recent disc for Steinway & Sons’ label. Let’s face it, even with all of the contrapuntal intricacies and rhythmic variety that Bach employs in constructing this late masterwork, it is still a whole lot of unabated d-minor to which to listen. In their interpretations, too many pianists go too far one way or the other: pretending that they are playing a harpsichord and supplying their recording with attendant quirks or instead ignoring period practices altogether and allowing their pacing to become inert, their tone stodgy, and the work as a consequence to seem bloated. Rangell’s got the “Goldilocks solution” for Art of Fugue; with lively pacing and  rhythmic vitality but without ignoring the capabilities of the glorious Steinway grand at his disposal, the pianist’s recording seems “just right” yet still capable of affording surprises.

Another excellent recording released this year that seems “just right” in its approach to Bach is pianist András Schiff’s latest rendition of both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier for ECM Records. Schiff is a pianist I’ve long regarded as a musical touchstone: one of the finest interpreters of Bach at the piano and a necessarily solid  counterweight to some of Glenn Gould’s extravagances and extroversion. His WTC for ECM demonstrates detailed preparation as well as intimate familiarity with all of the preludes and fugues; no doubt this is abetted by a rigorous performance scheduled incorporating these pieces. Schiff is also willing to take risks and try some different interpretations this time out. He never treats the Bach oeuvre as an ossified canon, but as an evolving document in which composer and interpreter can engage in a kind of dialogue, separated by centuries but united in this stirring music.

 

No one’s being put to sleep by this rendition!

J.S. Bach

Goldberg Variations

Takae Ohnishi

Bridge Records CD 9357

The legend about the Goldberg Variations, that they were played to a nobleman by Bach’s student Goldberg as a cure for his insomnia, has long been dismissed. But another, more recent, legend about the piece has in some circles taken hold: that no new recording can compare to the incredible corpus of renditions already available. When it comes to an imposing and varied work such as this set – an aria and thirty variations, a third of them canonic – my feeling is: the more versions, the merrier.

And one certainly can’t help but be glad that artists are still committing their own interpretations of the Goldberg Variations to disc when hearing the new Bridge recording of the work by harpsichordist Takae Ohnishi. It is fleet fingered but not in the hyperactive fashion of Glenn Gould’s recordings, clarion in its brilliance, detailed in its delineations of counterpoint, canons, and other linear details, and, above all, varied in its articulative and timbral details in a way that never makes one miss the dynamic gradations of the modern piano.  If a nobleman had commissioned this piece to cure his insomnia or keep him company during it, he would have likely preferred to remain nocturnal with Ohnishi at the keys!

Simone Dinnerstein plays Bach and Schubert (CD Review)

Something Almost Being Said

Works by J.S. Bach and Franz Schubert

Simone Dinnerstein, piano

Sony Classical CD

Simone Dinnerstein sometimes serves as the Bach pianist antipode of the late Glenn Gould. Where Gould set the pace for Bach playing at an often prestissimo, sometimes frantic, clip, Dinnerstein often seems willing to exult in elegant turns of phrase and luxuriate in legato lines, requiring a more stately pace. This observation is not meant to suggest that Dinnerstein isn’t capable of her own moments of presto-infused abandon, as one can hear on Something Almost Being Said in the sprightly movements of Bach Partitas Nos. 1 and 2. But these are balanced by cantabile sections that accentuate breaths between phrases. As the Sony CD’s title suggests, Dinnerstein seeks to emulate the phrasing of vocalists and extol the melodic suavity of both J.S. Bach and Franz Schubert. This goal is never achieved through mannered playing or fussily implemented rubato. Rather, Dinnerstein successfully captures the elusive fluidity that tempo fluctuations require in order to seem organic.

Schubert is represented by the four Op. 90 Impromptus, pieces in which the composer provides seamless linear trajectories of his own. Dinnerstein makes the widely contrasting dynamics and the more bravura passages of these works stand out in stark contrast to their effusively shimmering legato passages. Notably, her traversal of the famously challenging chestnut, No. 3 in G-flat Major, is spellbinding. While instrumental music can, at best, provide us with unspoken communication that is “almost said,” metaphorically at least this recording “speaks” volumes. Recommended.

David Leisner Favorites (CD Review)

David Leisner

Favorites

Azica ACD 71268

David Leisner’s latest solo recital disc, Favorites, is a consistently enjoyable program of repertory favorites and lesser known short works for classical guitar. Most imposing is his arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Violin Chaconne in D-minor. Written in the wake of the passing of Bach’s first wife, it is a funeral ode, albeit a non-liturgical one, like few others. Leisner wrings considerable poignancy from its wrenching harmonic passages and its long-breathed melodies: the latter are often filled with descending minor seconds, an affect that in the  rhetorical terms of the 18th century signified falling tears. However, the guitarist wisely avoids maudlin tempi or syrupy rubati, instead allowing the piece to unfold at a gradual but constant pace; making for a dignified rather than overly sentimental rendering. He takes a similar approach to Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal, a set of variations on a theme by John Dowland.

Leisner is also impressive in his transcription of Nicolo Paganini’s Grand Sonata, delivering a crisply fleet-fingered rendition that favors clarity and bright articulation to the flashily mercurial (but sloppy) showiness of some other interpreters. He also champions several pieces by composer-guitarist Alexander Ivanov-Kramskoi (1912-1973), a creator of conservative but idiomatic and often technically demanding pieces for classical guitar. Ivanov-Kramskoi isn’t nearly as well known to Western audiences as he should be, and pieces like “Melancholy Waltz” and “Song Without Words” are considerably charming. Overall, Favorites provides a new context for familiar pieces – “old friends” – and contains several pleasing surprises. Recommended.