Mys­te­ri­ous Bound­aries Tony McManus Com­pass/The Planet Com­pany ★★★★ Bach: Sonatas and Par­ti­tas, Vol 1 Chris Thile None­such/Warner ★★★★✩

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music Reviews - Tony Hil­lier

SCOT­TISH folk fin­ger­style gui­tar player Tony McManus and US blue­grass man­dolin picker Chris Thile are ac­knowl­edged aces and in­no­va­tors in their fields. Putting their rep­u­ta­tions on the line by tack­ling revered clas­si­cal com­po­si­tions could be con­strued as go­ing be­yond the col­lo­quial craic. Purists might re­gard the at­tempts by non-spe­cial­ists to in­ter­pret Jo­hann Se­bas­tian Bach’s more chal­leng­ing vi­o­lin works on un­ortho­dox in­stru­ments with scorn. Non-afi­ciona­dos and those of a more open mind may see the ben­e­fit, even beauty, in hear­ing JSB’s time­less com­po­si­tions per­formed on steel-strung folk gui­tar and F-holed blue­grass man­dolin. The play­ing on both al­bums adds sub­stance to a propo­si­tion voiced by McManus: that bound­aries be­tween gen­res may be more por­ous than some may think. The ge­n­e­sis for Mys­te­ri­ous Bound­aries was a chal­lenge from Amer­i­can man­dolin­ist Mike Mar­shall for the Scot to learn Bach’s Pre­lude from Par­tita No 3 in E ma­jor, a ren­di­tion that oc­cu­pies cen­tre stage on this solo al­bum. It may not be co­in­ci­den­tal that Thile recorded a Bach piece in duo form with Mar­shall 10 years be­fore tack­ling the mas­ter com­poser ex­clu­sively and solo on Sonatas and Par­ti­tas, Vol 1. Lis­ten­ing to McManus’s bravado ren­di­tion of Bach’s Chaconne from Par­tita No 2 in D mi­nor, the 12min 52 sec high­light of his al­bum, it’s hard to doubt the gui­tarist’s ap­pli­ca­tion, ap­ti­tude or artistry. His ex­e­cu­tion of the chaconne’s de­mand­ing cen­tre­piece is im­pres­sive; crisp melody notes res­onat­ing nigh per­fectly with clean bass lines. In­ter­pre­ta­tions of the more som­bre Alle­mande from Par­tita No 2 and The Gold­berg Vari­a­tions, in which his steel strings ring as brightly as a harp­si­chord, are equally pro­fi­cient if less spec­tac­u­lar. Away from Bach, McManus puts com­pat­i­ble Celtic or­na­men­ta­tion on En­rique Grana­dos’s Span­ish Dance and skil­fully teases the melodic nu­ances from Erik Satie’s haunting Gnossi­enne No 1. The sec­ond of con­trast­ing ver­sions of Fran­cois Couperin’s harp­si­chord ron­deau Les Bar­ri­cades Mys­terieuses that book­end the al­bum has bari­tone gui­tar boost­ing bot­tom-end. While Thile’s man­dolin may not match the rich tone and tex­tures of McManus’s gui­tar, it projects a bright, full-bod­ied sound. The young Amer­i­can plays Bach solo with the at­tack that has char­ac­terised his work with his bands Nickel Creek and Punch Broth­ers. The tempo at which Thile plays may arouse apoplexy in clas­si­cal cir­cles but it makes ex­hil­a­rat­ing lis­ten­ing. His in­tent is sig­nalled early on, in Sonata No 1 in G mi­nor, with a flam­boy­ant read­ing of Fuga: Al­le­gro. The Fuga in Sonata No 2 in A mi­nor de­mands a more stately ap­proach, but even that con­tains a light­ning run. The Dou­ble in Par­tita No 1 in B mi­nor ex­tracts the bril­liant best from his daz­zling tech­nique.

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