Why would you play Bach on a mandolin? It’s not an obvious combination – unless you’re Chris Thile, who does it just because he can.
The American multi-instrumentalist and singer, with Nickel Creek and most recently Punch Brothers, has the virtuosity to play anything, and he does. Nothing is off limits. With just his mandolin and voice, he unleashes sets that might start and end with Bach, but segues back and forth through bluegrass, folk and jazz in between. Anything non-Bach he refers to as “stuff” and this includes his own idiosyncratic songs, such as the raunchy Set Me Up With One Of Your Friends.
Thile wears his extraordinary technique lightly and intersperses his lengthy sets with winning stories and banter – his fire and brimstone introduction to Daughter of Eve was wonderfully witty. His mandolin versions of Bach’s solo violin pieces worked best when he mixed it up, as in the case of the G minor violin sonata, where he spread the movements throughout the programme and wove other material into each one.
The exception was the B minor Partita, played in a oner. While this was undoubtedly a fantastic showcase for Thile’s incredible dexterity – he played the courante at such a supersonic speed, you almost didn’t hear the picking – some of the contrapuntal lines that underpin this suite of dance movements lost their shape.
For anyone who thought the mandolin a rather insignificant instrument, in Thile’s versatile hands it is a thrill a minute, leaving no genre unturned.