MacArthur Genius Grant winner, Punch Brothers frontman, Nickel Creek singer and mandolin player Chris Thile surprisingly, and unabashedly, hails Johann Sebastian Bach as one of his most important musical influences. In the liner notes of his new album, Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1, he specifically mentions Canadian pianist Glenn Gould’s 1981 rerecording of the Goldberg Variations as the album that “humanized” classical music for him. While Thile has collaborated with a number of high-caliber orchestral musicians like violinist Hilary Hahn and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, he tackles three Bach violin sonatas and partitas by himself on Vol. 1, and does so with astonishing elegance on the mandolin.
The shrill timbre of the mandolin, an unlikely choice for unaccompanied Bach, brings a certain brightness (sonically and metaphorically) to Thile’s interpretations, which honor the disparate dynamics, stretching arpeggios and seamless harmonic transitions of their original texts. His chordal playing is especially apparent in the Tempo Di Borea movement of the first partita and his stunningly speedy precision marks the Presto movements of both the first sonata and partita. However, Thile’s creative liberties conjure the most excitement, as he constantly adapts and improvises fills for his instrument when the original sounds can’t be recreated.
The same modernization that marked the instrumental choice also manifests itself in the structure of the album. The hour-long Vol. 1 includes just three classical works, but is divided by movement into tracks about the same length as most songs on the radio, thereby rendering the record more digestible for pop-music consuming audiences. And if Thile can introduce classical music to other listeners and demographics with just his stature and skill, then maybe he really is a genius, after all.