Chris Thile, the undisputed king of bluegrass mandolin, might raise eyebrows by presenting his first volume of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas. Bach by Hillbilly….audacity? Hubris?
Mr. Thile approaches this music with the humility of an acolyte, without the baggage of traditions, mannerisms or preconceptions, and with the assurance of a star whose mission is to make people happy.
From some of our greatest violinists we have been trained to expect weighty, ponderous, even turgid interpretations; the heavier the more ‘meaningful’, so it is astonishing to hear this music played clear-eyed and fleet of foot.No small part of Mr. Thile’s mastery is turning the limitations of his instrument to his advantage. Dwelling more on unforced dynamics, he could be addressing each of us individually. His judicious forte contrasts are oddly grand yet still intimate.
The Sicilienne from the G minor Sonata suits wonderfully the mandolin we associate with strolling, though in the Adagio he is not quite able to sustain the illusion of the legato. The slow movements of the B minor Partita and A minor Sonata are poignantly expressed in achingly sweet tones, dulcet and crystalline, with earnest unfettered phrasing. A trace of Mr. Thile’s background adds a delicious taste of earthiness – the well-placed twangs here and there, or the opening strummed chords of the a minor andante conjuring a sense of slow blues. The preceding Fugue is marvelous, and all the fast movements were consistently excellent, virile and propulsive.
If at times we wonder that we might lose this artist in his flights of fancy, he lands, beaming, at our feet, impeccable, with a flourish of his feathered cap over his heart.