To Bach, or Not to Bach?
Since it arrived at NEPR last week, we've given plenty of airplay to mandolinist Chris Thile's new CD of J.S. Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, the first of a projected two volumes. If you've missed it so far, tune in at about 1:45 Monday afternoon for the Sonata No. 1.
Bach's Sonatas and Partitas, the summit of the violin repertoire — on the mandolin? That shouldn't be a problem, especially in the hands of a virtuoso like Thile, the McArthur genius grant-winning virtuoso, known both his work with the Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek, and for such classical collaborations as "The Goat Rodeo Sessions" with Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan and Edgar Meyer. They're at Tanglewood this Thursday, FYI. The mandolin is basically a manual violin, so the transference of music for one instrument to the other shouldn't pose insuperable technical challenges. And heaven knows, we've broadcast Bach's unaccompanied violin and cello works played on all sorts of un-Bachian instruments, from the modern grand piano (e.g, Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck, András Schiff, Angela Hewitt) to guitars of every description (including the Pioneer Valley's archguitarist and Bach maven Peter Blanchette), from the banjo of Béla Fleck to the synthesizer of Wendy Carlos — never mind Leopold Stokowski's orchestrations, the Jacques Loussier Trio's improvisations or the too-cool-for-words scat of the Swingle Singers. As these and other superb artists demonstrate, Bach's music doesn't just survive being played on the "wrong" instrument, it positively thrives on it. To a greater extent than than that of any other composer, the genius of Bach's music is in the notes, not in one particular sound. It retains its integrity no matter what you do to it, and reveals different facets of itself in each unique rendering.
But different though their instruments may be, there's one thing all the above performers have in common: They speak Bach. They articulate the notes to make them dance, knowing which ones to stress, which to lighten up on. They phrase the notes to make them sing, grouping these into a clause, those into a sentence, inserting a breath at just the right point. They tease out the multiple lines implied in a single series of notes, subtly nudge the tempo forward or back, and generally perform myriad acts of seeming alchemy (otherwise known as musicianship) to make pieces once regarded as dry excercises into the most joyous expressions of the human spirit ever put into sound. Do I gush? That's was well-played Bach does to me.
And here is where Thile lets me down. But before I tell you why, listen for yourself. Here's the opening Adagio from the Sonata No. 1, the piece we'll play for you Monday afternoon on NEPR:
What did you hear? I'd love for you to tell me in a reply. What I heard was a plodding, metronomic tempo, with almost none of the rubato (rhythmic push-pull) that helps the music flow. I heard a relatively unvaried attack, as if Thile's musical alphabet were missing several consonants. I heard an instrument whose dry tone and rapid decay (i.e., the way the notes die away more quickly than on most instruments) do not necessarily disqualify it from Bach, but which require a lot more resourcefulness from the player than Thile musters. Basically, what I heard was exactly the kind of dry excercise the performers I praise above show this music not to be. While the fugues and faster movements on Thile's CD go better, they're not really any more idiomatic. It's just that that the faster speeds emphasize Thile's virtuosity while somewhat mitigating his and his instrument's shortcomings.
Why, you mighty fairly ask, would I take off this way on an accomplished musician like Chris Thile? Isn't this a case of "those who can, do; those who can't, criticize?" Mostly it's because of my belief that whatever praise I gave Thile for his Bach would be dishonest. Here and elsewhere, praise would be meaningless if there is no possibilty of criticism. Whatever false applause I gave Thile would be an insult to the many great Bach perfomers I've admired and/or befriended. They worked hard to get their Bach right. It's unfair to them if I said someone else's Bach was as good as theirs when it wasn't.
You can't just play Bach's notes and say you're playing Bach. His music takes a lot more than that; indeed, Bach will test your musical abilities more than anything else you'll ever play. By that standard, great as he is in other music, Chris Thile is a Bach neophyte. Pablo Casals, the legendary cellist whose youthful discovery of Bach's then-little-known Cello Suites changed his life, and who practiced this music every day of his adult life, waited until he was in his sixties before recording his interpretations. Would that Chris Thile showed equivalent modesty.
And now for something better, found utterly at random on YouTube: A musician named Jeff Stern, playing the same Adagio from Bach's Sonata No. 1 — on the marimba! I'm not ready to pin the Great Bach Performer medal on Mr. Stern quite yet. But to my ears, he makes a heck of a lot more sense out of the piece than Thile. Once again, Bach lives!