The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Bluegrass mandolinist Chris Thile plays J.S. Bach – and earns raves. | October 27, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

The brilliantly eclectic mandolin player Chris Thile (below, in a photo by Branley Gutierrez) ) is hot these days.

I recently heard Thile – who has been a member of the bluegrass bands Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers — live on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and also saw that Wisconsin Public Radio was offering his new recording as a gift during its recently completed — and successfully completed — fall pledge drive.

Chris Thile CR Branley Gutierrez

Thile’s new album for Nonesuch Records features his playing of solo violin sonatas and partitas by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Thile says he was inspired directly by the recording that Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux did of the solo violin sonatas and partitas decades ago for Philips. It is performance that The Ear, along with so many other critics, put right on the top of the list.

Arthur Grumiaux

But Thile also says he was heavily influenced by Canadian pianist and legend Glenn Gould – well, which Bach player wasn’t, one way or the other? Thile especially names Gould’s second version of the famous “Goldberg” Variations as a milestone in his life and career.

Glenn Gould old

To be fair, I still prefer the original violin version to the mandolin version.

But I have to admit that Thile’s playing and interpretations of Bach’s difficult music are miracles unto themselves. And unusual transcriptions are perfectly in keeping with the aesthetic and practice of Baroque era composers as well as Romantics like Franz Liszt and Ferrucio Busoni. Just listen to the YouTube video at the bottom of Chris Thile playing Bach’s complete Sonata No. 1 in G minor on the mandolin.

Here is a wonderful comprehensive and personal profile and background story to Chris Thile’s concert in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, written by Steve Smith, that appeared in The New York Times:

Here is an illuminating link to a conversation that Thile had on NPR with host Rachel Martin:

And here is a link to the New York Times’ review of that concert (below, in a photo by Tina Fineberg) by critic Vivien Schweitzer:

Chris Thile at Zankel Hall CR Tina Fineberg for NYT

What do you think of Chris Thile and his mandolin Bach?

Do you have a favorite solo violin partita or sonata by J.S. Bach?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. Since the mandolin is essentially a violin played only pizzicato, Thile’s playing is a natural, rather than an “unusual transcription.” The nature of the instrument is such that it has little sustain, so the mandolinist must use tremolo to simulate the sustained notes produced by a bow. It is not the same, so may sound “wrong” to one’s ears to hear violin repertoire played on the mandolin. The limitations of the mandolin may make it a stretch to play some violin music. (By the way, Stradivari made mandolins.) The Modern Mandolin Quartet is a picked string quartet (two mandolins, mandola, and mandocello) playing standard quartet repertoire and then some.

    Comment by Steve Rankin — October 28, 2013 @ 1:12 pm

    • Hi Steve,
      You have good and knowledgeable points about the mandolin.
      But picky picky.
      I will stand by my characterization of them as unusual — meaning not found often.
      I certainly do not know of other mandolin recordings. And that is in part why Chris Thile is getting so much attention with them, no?
      I did not and would not call his versions unjustified or travesties or something similar. But I will also stand by my preference for the original violin versions.
      That said, they have their charm on the mandolin and may be closer to baroque violin without vibrato on the mandolin rather than the modern violin.
      That, as always, for reading closely and replying thoughtfully.

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 28, 2013 @ 9:14 pm

  2. Why not? Music is a dynamic art, and evolution is good. Chris Thile gets a big thumbs up from me.

    Comment by Kathy Otterson — October 27, 2013 @ 7:38 am

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