Countless listeners and musicians have found joy in the springy, complex melodies and counterpoints of Johann Sebastian Bach in the 267 years since his life. When three of those musicians — recognized virtuosos of their respective instruments — come together to reimagine the great master, there is little that can go terribly wrong.
While all of the songs on Bach Trios were written originally for keyboard instruments — with the exception of “Sonata for Viola da Gamba No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 1029” — lauded mandolinist Chris Thile (now host of “A Prairie Home Companion”), cellist Yo Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer have come together to re-arrange a selection of Bach pieces into a 17-track compilation for their respective crafts.
The result is a fresh — or jarring, depending on one’s viewpoint — instrumental soundscape; in particular, those familiar with performances of Bach’s sonatas will instantly notice the difference in sound produced by Thile’s mandolin, an instrument typically associated with bluegrass.
Fortunately, the technical skills of the three musicians translates in the arrangements they’ve developed for Bach Trios — Meyers’ double bass anchors the higher registers of Ma and Thile, while still having some room to participate in the melodic exchanges and counterpoints.
Each musician also has a chance to shine individually. Thile’s mandolin floats in the forefront of “Fugue No. 18 in E Minor, BWV 548,” where he demonstrates his exceptional playing ability with runs and flourishes one might think impossible on a mandolin. Meanwhile, on “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639,” Thile and Meyer drop into the background to allow the haunting, beautiful melody of Ma’s cello — sounding almost like a deeply timbred viola in its highest notes — to ring through the mix.
One gets the impression, listening to Bach Trios, that the project emerged organically from the years-long friendship between the three musicians. It’s inherently lighthearted, almost like the three were sitting around talking and realized they all loved Bach and had somehow not jammed out to him together, then cranked out the arrangements in an afternoon.
If we take the album without that context — that Thile, Ma and Meyer produced Bach Trios for any reason other than they thought it would be enjoyable — then the record starts to list lightly. Besides the unique instrumentation, which successfully avoids distraction and quickly feels natural, Bach Trios brings little more to Bach’s masterpieces than expert playing. Given that all three musicians are so deeply respected, a higher risk, perhaps even a more offensive reimagining, might’ve been a breath of fresher air. Or maybe you just don’t mess with Bach.
Ultimately, Bach Trios is a perfectly solid, eclectic collection of Bach’s works. For these players, holding the tactile pressing of the record is likely less important than the joy of playing Bach together — a joy the three have discussed over their years of collaborations.
In a similar way, listening to the well-constructed, impeccably performed sonatas and fugues of the album — and indeed, most classical music — does not convey the experience of seeing them performed live. The interactions between the players, both explicit and unspoken, and the speed and agility with which the players actually perform the more difficult passages, makes a live performance the preferable way of consuming this type of music.
Fans of the three musicians will soon get the chance, as Thile, Ma and Meyer have just set out on a tour performing their selection of Bach pieces, and they will be making a stop at Cal Performances on Sunday with a performance at the the Greek Theatre in Berkeley as part of the tour. Really, that’s the biggest weakness of Bach Trios overall — in light of these live performances, the production of a released album feels a tad unnecessary.
Thile, Ma and Meyer will be performing at the Greek Theatre on Sunday.
Imad Pasha covers film. Contact him at [email protected].