Chris Thile has been playing the mandolin for a big portion of his life; it's really fair to say he's a virtuoso on the instrument, and he came to my conscience through his recording with Yo-Yo Ma of the Goat Rodeo Sessions. Having little knowledge of bluegrass, his name might have been already known had I a wider appreciation of music.
It seems Thile was introduced earlier in his life to Bach through the Brandenburg Concertos and Gould's second recording of the Goldberg Variations. He first started playing Bach from ear, although on this project, the score was happily advised. In his first release, produced by Edgar Meyer, he records BWV 1001, 1002, and 1003. He spoke on NPR about this recording, and specifically about the "short" note life of sound on the mandolin compared to the violin. This is true too of the harpsichord, an instrument likely better known to Bach. It is odd, however, that the music sounds at home on the mandolin: it's a little more fragile, intimate, and humble a sound for sure. It reminds me in some way to the sound of a clavichord, often cited as one of Bach's favorite instruments, despite its personal and soft sound.
Thile, I have no doubt, is a musical genius, and his treatment here of Bach is clean, well-considered, and flawlessly executed. His readings are a nice companion to versions on other instruments, including the violin. There is much you'll hear that you already know, but the consistent plucking and equality among voices will present Bach's music in a way that is perhaps not as idiomatic as the violin version, but equally nice. I've never believed Bach's music is stuck on just one instrument: his music translates so well across different media. Thile's reading isn't jazzy or folksy; his other musical endeavors may suggest this reading to be so. Instead, it's notes off the page without any external flavor added. Others have added their flavor to Bach (Jacques Loussier comes to mind), but Thile plays things straight.
His fast readings (Prestos) are quite the event. He plays technically clean, taking the fast path, and each note is very evenly played, it sounds almost machine-like. The sound from other strings vibrating, and the arc he gives to the lines makes it more human, eventually clueing us in that yes, a superhuman performer is behind the magic. The 8th track, the double-presto from BWV 1002 is ripe fodder for the illustration of incredible in a multimedia dictionary.
The slow movements may prove a challenge in the sustain of notes, which is not helped by the dry acoustic chosen for the recording. The sound, in fact, provides the illusion that Thile is in the room playing for us. I like it in the end, the dry acoustic supports the mandolin's sound and encourages us, I think, to turn down the volume to enjoy the intimate nature of the instrument. Thile can coax volume out at the appropriate moments, in a musical way that demonstrates his ability to reveal Bach's emotional side. But it's the slow readings by Thile that I think most better some readings on the violin—his sense of phrasing, and in some cases the push behind the tempo, are better solutions for Bach's music than the original instrument provides.
The sound of the mandolin, if you were to imagine how it was created, might be evoke images of a finger piano, a guitar with non-resonant strings, or even pizzicato on a noisy violin or viola. It's a less resonant instrument than the ukelele, but it comes from a similar sound world. It may not be your favorite instrument color. But under the fingers of an expert like Thile, you'll find its sound supports Bach's genius.
This is special music performed by a special artist. Very highly recommended. I won't grow tired of this one.