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