Hi-Rez Bach Trios from Ma, Thile, and Meyer

Given the pedigree of its three artists—cellist Yo-Yo Ma, mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, and bassist Edgar Meyer—this new recording of Bach Trios is destined to become a best-seller. That the hour-long recording is available in multiple formats, including as a Nonesuch CD, 24/96 hi-rez download, LP, and MQA stream via Tidal Masters, and is filled with glorious music grants it potential appeal to all music lovers, including audiophiles eager to compare formats.

The wonders of Thile's Bach playing are already known from his previous recordings for Nonesuch and Sony, and both Ma and Meyer are known entities whose non-classical partnership began around the music of Appalachia. Classically trained Meyer began genre-crossing two decades ago with his Uncommon Ritual partnership with banjo wonder Béla Fleck and mandolinist Mike Marshall, while Ma began swinging with violinist Stephane Grappelli in 1989, well before he began heading down the Silk Road and the byways of Appalachia.

The chosen repertoire, by J.S. Bach, lends itself perfectly to the artists' arrangements. But while Ma's musicianship shines through in a plethora of subtle inflections and perfectly executed ornaments, his tone suffers when playing softly. Nor, except when he has a solo line, can he put much pressure on the cello's strings, lest he overpower Thile's far more delicate mandolin.

The results are varied. Even amidst the infectious joy of the opening track, the life-affirming Vivace from Bach's Trio Sonata No. 6 in G, BWV 530, Ma's playing sounds tentative. Too many notes are incompletely sounded or scratchy, and intonation is occasionally troubling. Is he off pitch, unsuccessfully mimicking the sound of a baroque cello, or merely unable to mine the richness that is the cello's hallmark when playing so fast and light? For whatever reason(s), I found it impossible to suppress occasional winces amongst the smiles.

Slower movements, and passages where Ma can sink in, are far, far more successful. Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesus Christ, BWV 639, for example, gives him an opportunity to open up a bit and let the glories of his instrument shine. And several other tracks, including the longer Prelude No.18 in e, BWV 548 and Fugue No.18 in e, BWV 548, are delicious. If you find yourself transported to another dimension during the Fugue's wondrous counterpoint, you are not alone.

Perhaps Ma is at his best when he sings out Kommst du nun, Jesu, von Himmel herunter, BWV 650. The performance is wonderful, and the instrumental interplay divine.

Thile, whose only concern is that the other players respect the lightness of his instrument (which they do), is marvelous. His duet with Meyer in the beloved chorus, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645, is a gift to humankind, and radiates love. The only time Thile falters is when he switches to guitar in Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott, BWV 721, and spends four minutes plucking away monotonously. Had he played lighter, and Ma heavier, the track might have worked.

But oh, the miracles. To listen to some of the last music Bach wrote, the sequence of Rectus and Inversus from Contrapunctus XIII of The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080, is to spend 4:44 reveling in sheer genius. Add to that the ingenuity of the arrangements themselves, and the palpable devotion of the artists, and you have, despite reservations, a very special recording. Even when played in the background, Ma, Thile, and Meyer's Bach Trios is sure to give you occasion to pause and reflect on the mystery of beauty, and leave you thankful for the gift of music.

COMMENTS
Anton's picture

I am sold and off to buy.

Thank you for turning me on to this.

John Atkinson's picture
You should also check out Chris Thile's transcriptions for mandolin of the Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin.

And I think he's doing a good job hosting Prairie Home Companion, though he can't be Garrison Keillor.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

mghcanuck's picture

Jason,

Many thanks for this review. I've thoroughly enjoyed Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau's recent collaboration, despite a bit of thinness at times in Thile's voice, yet very touching vocal contributions. I shall check out this most recent album with Messrs. Ma and Meyer, masters both along with Thile.

All the best,

Max

Allen Fant's picture

instant buy! JVS
This meeting is a super-trio!

dalethorn's picture

I haven't heard anything quite like this before. The mandolin doesn't quite work for me, as I'm hearing mostly the plucking effects and not much string tone.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

your system is tuned too dark. The mandolin is not a bright, ringing instrument, but it definitely has a treble component and texture. If you play an orchestral piece with triangle, gongs, bells, and the like, do they hang and ring in space?

dalethorn's picture

I (ahem) see what you're getting at. I'll give that a shot...

dalethorn's picture

On a related note (no pun intended), I was mentioning to a friend that I walk around town with headphone and music player, and frequently when I remove the headphone I'm surprised that the ambient sound is often brighter and more "alive" than what I hear with the headphone. My friend said that "Treble is way over-rated in the environment."

ednazarko's picture

I've really enjoyed this album. I listen to music like this at the volume level that the players experience (used to play in all kinds of ensembles, music like this doesn't sound right to me if too much louder or softer.) Had it on my CIEMs while doing yard work yesterday and a couple times found myself just standing still, completely unaware of anything but the music. Lifted me out of my body for a minute or two. Passionate music, played with passion.