Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer: Bach Trios

Photo: Danny Clinch

Three musical masters combine forces to tackle all manner of compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach, with thrilling results.

Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer

Bach Trios

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2017-04-07

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.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.