This Friday Nonesuch Records will release Bach Trios, a new album that brings together a delightfully innovative gathering of performers. As usual, Amazon.com has already created a Web page for processing pre-orders. Furthermore, the search results for this album identify it as a “best seller,” even though it has not yet been released! However, the premature success may have more to do with the performers than with the music being performed. Those performers are cellist Yo-Yo Ma, mandolinist Chris Thile, and bassist Edgar Meyer, who are definitely not strangers to each other and who all have reputations for tastes that are as engaging as they are eclectic.
Those who know the music of Johann Sebastian Bach know that he had a particular skill in writing music for three voices. Only yesterday I observed that the keyboard part for each of the four movements of the BWV 1017 sonata for violin and keyboard in C minor can be taken as a two-part invention, with the violin part turning it into a three-part invention. Is it any wonder that much of the education of Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, involved the mastery of both two-part and three-part inventions? Even before we think about matters of performance, this new Bach Trios album provides valuable insight into the diverse variety of settings in which Bach would compose music in three parts. Beyond the sonatas for solo instrument and keyboard, there are the trio sonatas, works for single-manual keyboard, including both preludes and fugues in The Well-Tempered Clavier, and chorale preludes.
All of these “parse” very neatly into voices that can be distributed across a bass, a cello, and a mandolin. Much of this has to do with the extended range of the cello, which is comfortable with any one of those three voices. It is thus likely that Meyer, Ma, and Thile could play directly from Bach scores without ever having to worry about transposition, by an octave or any other interval.
Indeed, the skills of the players are such that the ear may occasionally be fooled. Meyer introduces the subject of the A minor fugue in the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 889), which starts at the E above middle C and involves the sort of thirty-second note runs that are good for building up left-hand dexterity; and Ma answers him a fourth higher, leaving it to Thile to come in a fifth higher than that. Those unfamiliar with the structure of this fugue might initially think that Ma would have had the first word, not realizing that such an allocation would leave no room for Meyer. So it is across all of the tracks on this album, each of which involves a perfectly faithful account of the marks Bach had committed to paper.
Purists might wonder what Bach would have made of all of this. One might approach that subject with a variation on the lead-in to a classic family of jokes: “A cellist, a mandolinist, and a bassist get into the Tardis and then walk into Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in eighteenth-century Leipzig on a Friday evening.” Most likely the members of the Collegium Musicum would have the same sort of WTF reaction that is frequently expressed by many of the characters in Doctor Who episodes. However, if they were allowed to unpack their instruments and warm up a bit, it would not be long before they were accepted as honorable members of the gang.
Back in the 21st century, this album provides a valuable opportunity to appreciate just what Bach could do with three independent voices. The fact is that it is not too difficult to sort out the differences in sonority between a cello and a bass, particularly when the performers are as good as Ma and Meyer in cultivating the uniqueness of those sonorities; and, of course, the mandolin is in a class by itself. Thus, the attentive listener can easily distinguish the three independent voices on each of the tracks of this album, thus gaining more insight into what Bach was doing than might be gathered from a more “historically-informed” gathering of players. This is an album that tells us as much about Bach as it does about the adventurous pursuits of the players.