Instruments Bach never heard (2): The marimba

Instruments Bach never heard (2): The marimba


norman lebrecht

April 01, 2017

We weren’t that thrilled last week with Yo Yo Ma’s release, in which the cellist plays with mandolinist Chris Thile on bits of Bach for the dinner-party circuit.

This, however, is different.

Amir Lavie, principal percussionist of the Israel Symphony Orchestra, thinks the Fugue from the Violin Sonata in G minor by J.S. Bach sounds better on Marimba.

See what you think.

The filiming is the work of ISO co-principal flute, Yoel Culliner.


  • Mikey says:

    It sounds nice…. as in, any Bach piece sounds great played by whatever instrument because its great music to start with.
    But better than the violin?
    Yeah, sorry, no.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Quite an achievement. If Bach had known the marimba, he had not written for that imstrument, I’m sure, as he had not written for the theramin, ukulele or the electric guitar. Why would people want to play such music for their instrument? Would be better to have a new piece specially written for it instead.

    • stefan verbeek says:

      thou shalt not edit. …

    • Myrtar says:

      “Would be better to have a new piece specially written for it instead.” – given that Bach transcribed dozens of his own pieces to different instruments, one can assume he’d disagree with that statement. Great music isn’t locked to a single instrument, it transcends that.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Yes, that is true, but given the choice (in a purely theoretical case) it seems highly unlikely to me that Bach would have chosen the marimba or the cymbalom over the violin or the harpsichord, or the electric guitar over, let’s say, the organ. Musical instruments have their own character and aura, and lots of associations.

      • Scott Fields says:

        In fact Bach transcribed this very piece for lute, which has more similarities to marimba than violin. It’s often played on classical guitar as well, as is all of the Bach lute music.

  • Ungeheuer says:


    • Anon says:

      Oh, come on. It’s rather nice. It would be much nicer to listen to if the audio wasn’t recorded in such a ‘close’ manner (the notes particularly at the top don’t have the chance to ring, the beaters feel like they hit your head, and you hear the rattles of the instrument too clearly), but this is incumbent on th recording engineer, not the player. I enjoyed the playing, and seeing it, too.

  • Paul Davis says:

    Not better than the violin, but different. The violin has such an intense expression that the marimba provides only a very small portion of this intensity, but conversely gives a light and brilliant version of the same music, appealing to those who seek entertainment rather than depth. Nothing wrong with that, and for musicians, the sheer skill of the performer brings its own intensity. Bravo!

    I haven’t understood the relevance of the foto underneath which doesn’t seem to include Amir Lavie. Is it something to do with the ISO co-principal flutist’s filming: Yoel have a Cullinery treat?

    • Cyril Blair says:

      The photo is a reference to NL’s assertion that the Bach/YoYo Ma/Chris Thile release “will be a big hit at dinner parties.” (see the earlier thread NL linked to.)

  • Larry says:

    As a (recovering) percussionist, I can tell you that it is great to play Bach on the marimba. Great music sounds great on any instrument. The marimba is no more or less “acceptable” for Bach than a saxophone or Moog synthesizer, for example. Additionally, playing Bach on the marimba gives a percussionist a chance to play music from another era. Nothing wring with that!

  • Eric says:

    Bach on marimba happens to be beautiful, in my honest opinion. Sure, it’s different, but it has the staccato sound of a harpsichord, which isn’t unlike that of the time of Bach. I’m all for more marimba transcriptions.

  • M2N2K says:

    In principle, a lot of Bach’s music is so objectively absolute and abstract that it is not nearly as instrument-specific as that by many other composers, such as for example most of Chopin’s piano pieces, which makes it quite reasonable and effective when transcribed to some other instruments. In this case however, the character of marimba’s sound is too “romantic” for Bach yet too monochromatic for a truly romantic interpretation, so it’s kind of neither here nor there. And a bunch of wrong notes that he plays between 4:20 and 4:55 for no apparent reason do not endear his playing for my taste.