The music of Johann Sebastian Bach is a great unifier. Regardless of musical upbringing or primary influence, it would be difficult to encounter a musician who does not in some way fall under the spell of the Baroque master’s 1,000-plus compositions. Additionally, the elegant symmetry and complex-yet-accessible weaving of counterpoint and melody often makes Bach’s music open to endless interpretations. Because of this, any odd or unique new arrangement of a Bach piece is rarely greeted skeptically. Like some universal power cable, Bach’s music can fit anywhere. That’s part of its beauty.
The combination of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, mandolinist Chris Thile and bassist Edgar Meyer is hardly the most unusual group of musicians to gather for a recording of Bach’s music, but there is a refreshing uniqueness that, to some degree, sets it apart from the usual solo recordings or chamber ensembles that seem to come down the pike on a regular basis. Ma and Meyer have collaborated on countless occasions over the course of many years (both with and without the music of Bach), Thile and Meyer have recorded as a duo, and Thile joined Ma and Meyer in the past as a guest on Ma’s Songs of Joy and Peace. The three were also joined by a fourth musician — bluegrass multi-instrumentalist Stuart Duncan — for 2011’s The Goat Rodeo Sessions. But this new collection of Bach works marks the first time that Ma, Thile and Meyer have released an entire album strictly as a trio.
Listening to the album (recorded at James Taylor’s home studio, dubbed “The Barn”, located in the bucolic woods of western Massachusetts), it’s hard to imagine why it took so long for this to take place — it’s not like the songs were waiting to be written. One can only envision scheduling nightmares preventing anything from coming to fruition — the three are as hyper-productive as they are talented, as their combined discographies prove.
Bach Trios is made up of Bach works written for keyboard instruments, plus one sonata for viola da gamba. Since there isn’t a keyboard or viola da gamba to be found among these three musical titans, the arrangements must make up for it, and what arises is a unique blend of stringed instruments that reinvent the compositions in new and exciting ways. Thile’s mandolin frequently yields the most startling, revelatory results; it often fills in for a missing piano or harpsichord.
Additionally, for an instrument that conjures up the feel of bluegrass (the genre of choice for Thile as a member of both Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers), the listener is often reminded of Appalachia Waltz and Appalachian Journey, the albums Ma and Meyer recorded with fiddler Mark O’Connor. It’s a neat trick to give 18th century Baroque masterpieces just a hint of heartland Americana, but it works here because it’s done so subtly and not as a gimmick.
All three musicians get more than enough chances to shine not only as a trio but individually. One of Ma’s greatest moments on the album is the chorale prelude “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ”. The achingly lyrical upper register of his cello (ably backed by Thile and Meyer) is a simple yet gorgeous interpretation. Throughout the album, Meyer’s double bass acts both as a suitable anchor for the various musical flights of fancy as well as a willing participant in the thorny counterpoint present throughout many of Bach’s accomplished pieces.
A handful of pieces written for solo keyboard, such as the various preludes and fugues from “The Well-Tempered Clavier” and the “Passepied from Keyboard Partita No. 5 in G Major” allow the complexity of these “solo” compositions to blossom into multifaceted, multi-instrumental performances, with predictably fascinating results. At the same time, the sonatas show Ma, Thile and Meyer well within their comfort zone as they embrace more traditional arrangements.
In what is possibly the album’s most nontraditional arrangement, the trio take on the chorale prelude “Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott” with Thile putting aside his mandolin in favor of a guitar. His simple, relaxed chords provide an accompaniment that sounds more akin to relaxed Caribbean jazz than baroque classical. It’s momentarily jarring but almost immediately clicks into place as just another variation in the world of Bach arrangements.
Nearly as jarring is the transition from the aforementioned chorale prelude to the album’s final composition, the “Sonata for Viola da Gamba No. 3 in G Minor.” Once again, we’re back to a more traditional arrangement with all three participants firing on all cylinders. This kind of eclectic plan, weaving together all manner of Bach compositions, using both traditional and non-traditional instruments, is key — along with the immense talents of all three musicians — to a formidable new release of Bach music, proving once again that the composer’s music will live on long after we’re all gone.