Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1
Chris Thile, whose background spans classical, bluegrass and other genres, insists that the appropriate reaction to these transcriptions of solo violin works is not ‘Oh boy, he’s playing a weird instrument! [but to recognise that] the mandolin has the potential to cast them in a new and hopefully interesting light’.
The adaptation of music designed for a principally bowed instrument to a plucked one obviously raises various issues regarding attack, sustain, resonance and decay, quite apart from the timbral differences. But Bach himself sometimes addressed these when, for example, he arranged the Cello Suite in C minor, BWV 1011 as the Lute Suite in G minor, BWV 995.
You’d expect to have to make the biggest adjustments of expectation for slower passages but sometimes surprises work backwards: for example, the presto movement of the B minor Partita ends up resembling one of Conlon Nancarrow’s player-piano pieces, with its percussive sound, and you have to think hard to remember how it sounds on violin. Thile employs athletic, incisive, precision-picking (nothing like the tremolo-dominated sound of stereotypical Neapolitan ballads) with fast movements taken at a speedier lick than some other interpretations, yet he never sacrifices musicality for technique. Thile’s phrasing properly honours Bach’s compositional design and logic, and his playing is full of feeling, with slow movements that are graceful and sensitive.