* * * * THE SCOTSMAN * * * * * FOLK WALES * * * * RnR MAGAZINE * * * * SPIRAL EARTH
Chris Newman is “in the virtuoso class” (The Guardian) and is the UK’s premier flat-picking guitarist.
Chris's new solo album of his arrangements for steel-strung flatpicked guitar of sonatas and partitas written by JS Bach for solo instruments has just been released and is available for purchase both in CD and download format from our Old Bridge Music website, from a number of other websites and from iTunes! It has already garnered some * * * * and * * * * * reviews: see here for print reviews and here for online reviews.
Breaking Bach is quite groundbreaking – a recording of this music on steel-strung flatpicked guitar has not been attempted until now - and is a musical and technical tour-de-force.
It was the perfect lockdown undertaking. These sublime pieces could be played entirely solo and there was no shortage of time to explore them in detail. They were written for solo instruments, each note implying both melody and harmony. Chris has developed complex cross-picking techniques to artfully delineate their harmonic shape, making audible what was always implied.
He says: "The first, and most important, thing for me to point out is that this is not a classical guitar recording. The pieces contained herein were all composed by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) for solo flute, cello or violin and would ordinarily be considered to be ‘classical’ music. However, I am most certainly not a classical guitarist and have never been trained as such. My background consists of quite a wide variety of things: swing jazz, folk, bluegrass and traditional music from Ireland, Scotland and elsewhere all played with a flatpick (plectrum) on a steel-strung acoustic guitar. Many recordings of this music exist played by really excellent classical (nylon-strung) guitarists who, of course, would never dream of going anywhere near a plectrum, or steel strings. It’s been a fun project and I hope people like it."
It is generally asserted that steel strings were first used on guitars in the late 19th century, but Máire has recently (November 2021) come across evidence showing that guitars were being strung with steel as far back as the 18th century. On 13 June, 1768, John Bardin, bookseller in Castle Street, Cork City, Ireland, advertised his wares as follows in the Cork Evening Post: "genuine Roman fiddle strings, harpsichord wire, brass, steel and silver strings for the guitar, directions for all sorts of instruments, simple songs"- quoted in Susan O'Regan, Music and Society in Cork, 1700 - 1900 (Cork University Press, 2018), p. 15.
It is therefore possible that Chris, in making this recording of the music of Bach, is merely reviving a lost tradition of classical music performance on steel-strung guitar!
Have a listen to a composite of extracts on this sampler...
Listen to Chris being interviewed about the album:
...by presenter John Toal on BBC Radio Ulster's "Classical Connections" programme, broadcast on Sunday Sepember 5th. (The programme can be heard online on catch-up for up to 30 days after broadcast and is also accessible from anywhere in the world via BBC Sounds.)
Watch Chris being interviewed about the album:
...by English mandolin ace Simon Mayor. Chris and Simon have known each other for a very long time, and over the years they’ve played on each other’s recordings and even done live stuff together from time to time, but never done this before – an interview on the steps of Simon's house in Reading. You can see it here.
'Breaking Bach' was Album of the Week on RTÉ Lyric FM's 'Lorcan Murray's Classic Drive' July 26 - 30.
Tracks from the CD were played on the programme every day that week.
'Breaking Bach' has received some lovely comments on Facebook:
"Amazing... While the rest of us pickers were messing around during the pandemic, Chris was busy figuring out how to flatpick Bach partitas. I am awed by your guitar skills."
"Crikey Chris! You’ve really surpassed yourself. ‘Breaking Bach’ is just terrific."
"Bloody marvellous. I am 100% sure my memory has a fraction of the capacity yours has."
"Mine arrived in yesterday's post & I'm listening since. Lovely crisp, melodious Bach, and a terrific idea. Thank you, Chris"
'This is a beautiful album. You need it.'
"Its a fantastic CD. Incredible talent and hard work made something very beautiful."
'Really couldn't recommend this more if I tried. Chris is one of the true guitar masters. He's featured some of these on social media over lockdown. Wonderful.' - Phil Beer
Chris Newman acoustic guitar
* * * * THE SCOTSMAN
"This audacious and eminently enjoyable hijacking sees Chris Newman, who has played with the likes of Stephane Grappelli, the Boys of the Lough and, of course, in his outstanding duo with Irish harpist Máire Ní Chathasaigh, lend a distinctively ringing but also regardful character to this hallowed canon."
THE LIVING TRADITION
"Groundbreaking - a magnificent tour-de-force... The elegance and refinement of Chris’s playing artfully conceal the seamless technique and effort expended, and the whole exercise sounds as natural as breathing... Chris’s stylish, supremely skilled fretwork is irresistible, with its swing in the step and rhythmic buoyancy... Outstanding"
* * * * RnR MAGAZINE
"Life-affirming... (Newman's) achievement is colossal... Elegant, stylish and unmistakeably from the heart."
* * * * * FOLK WALES
“Dazzling... utterly breathtaking... a triumph."
"This is an astonishing CD... I knew Chris has wonderful technique, but I was still amazed at what he has achieved with this recording. The playing on this CD is flawless, completely under control and delivered with great sensitivity and expression."
* * * * SPIRAL EARTH
"Twelve tracks sweep by in unplugged splendour... Chris Newman is in a class of his own."
IRISH MUSIC MAGAZINE
"A major technical achievement... [Chris plays] here with complete musicality and joy."
“Breaking Bach is a lovely album to listen to and when you’ve finished enjoying it you can admire the technique, marvel at the work that’s gone into arranging and performing the music and then enjoy it all over again."
THE SCOTSMAN * * * * 7 August, 2021 (print edition); 30 July, 2021 (online edition)
"What does a long-respected folk guitarist do when all work dries up during lockdown? Why, re-arrange JS BachÕs partitas and sonatas for the unlikely-sounding medium of flat-picked, steel-strung guitar of course. This audacious and eminently enjoyable hijacking sees Chris Newman, who has played with the likes of Stéphane Grappelli, the Boys of the Lough and, of course, in his outstanding duo with Irish harpist Máire Ní Chathasaigh, lend a distinctively ringing but also regardful character to this hallowed canon. Subtitled Flatpicking the Partitas, the recording indeed features extracts from the Flute Partita in A minor and the Violin Partita No 2 in D minor, but also delves into the Cello Suites and Violin Sonatas. In fact it is with the prelude, courante and jig from the Violin Sonata No 3 that Newman opens briskly, establishing a brightness and brio that pervades these interpretations."
THE LIVING TRADITION, August / September, 2021
Old Bridge Music OBMCD23
"Let me assure you straightaway that Breaking Bach couldn’t be further from the stereotype of the solo guitar album as a sterile vanity showcase for fretboard geeks!
Chris Newman is a highly regarded ‘musician’s musician’, a veteran acoustic guitarist who can play anything, in whatever style, as to the manner born and always with the apposite depth of knowledge and feeling for the idiom. Nevertheless, he’s humbly aware of his limitations, and faced with the unprecedented challenge of lockdown inactivity he chose to take on something outside of even his own wide envelope, a quite literally groundbreaking project to play the music of baroque master composer Johann Sebastian Bach on steel-strung flatpicked guitar. Never before attempted, yet it has turned out a magnificent tour de force.
The excerpted pieces carefully chosen and arranged by Chris are intelligently coordinated to enable the disc’s sequence to give maximum listening pleasure. They comprise individual movements from compositions for solo instruments – Violin Sonatas and Partitas and a Cello Suite – and a complete Flute Partita. Only in the case of the Cello Suite has any transposition been necessary (G to D), but in all these pieces careful positioning is crucial for the guitarist. Importantly too, each note implies both melody and harmony. Classical guitarists, using nylon-strung instruments, have (traditionally) harmonically enhanced the music in their own way, enabling arrangement and presentation, but Chris plays these largely monophonic pieces exactly as written, and the clean, intimate recording ensures each note rings true. The elegance and refinement of Chris’s playing artfully conceal the seamless technique and effort expended, and the whole exercise sounds as natural as breathing: appealingly relaxed yet perennially fresh-eared and alert to the music’s possibilities. Chris’s stylish, supremely skilled fretwork is irresistible, with its swing in the step and rhythmic buoyancy, whether on the pellucid moto-perpetuo dexterity of the Allegro of Violin Sonata 3, the contrasting metrical juxtapositions of the Flute Partita’s Sarabande or the infectious jig-like momentum of the Corrente from Violin Partita 2.
The accolade of “outstanding” for Breaking Bach is irrevocably clinched, even before you learn that notwithstanding his proven, assured virtuosity, Chris doesn’t read music! The unimaginably laborious, ponderous, painstaking process of learning these pieces renders Chris’s achievement even more toweringly impressive, for this deeply listenable album is both informed by the joy of discovery and brimming over with the celebration of a hard-won achievement. Maximum respect!"
* * * * RnR MAGAZINE, September / October, 2021
FOLK LONDON, August / September, 2021
"This is an astonishing CD. The restrictions we’ve been under over the past year and a half have led many great folk artists to put together some highly creative projects, including online concerts and no end of home-recorded and produced albums, and teaching ventures. But none of the projects that I’ve heard of seem quite so unlikely as the respected folk and jazz artist Chris Newman recording a series of Bach’s Partitas using a flatpicked steel-strung acoustic guitar.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise. In common with much of Bach, the Partitas are beautiful, harmonically complex pieces that get played on the classical guitar as well as the instruments for which they were intended. So why shouldn’t they be enjoyed on other, related instruments?
The selections Chris chose for this CD were written for violin, cello and flute, which means in practice that the note combinations the pieces demand will usually be just about manageable (or perhaps able to be worked around) by a guitarist playing with a plectrum, so long as they have the required technique.
Having seen him play close up quite a few times, I knew Chris has wonderful technique, but I was still amazed at what he has achieved with this recording. The playing on this CD is flawless, completely under control and delivered with great sensitivity and expression.
Even the guitar he has chosen to use is impressive with its even, controlled tone, and seems just right for the job.
Chris says he is unlikely to play this music live, so buying this CD is the only way we can hear it all. I would say it is well worth listening to both as an astonishing technical exercise and as an enjoyable and even soothing entertainment – just as Bach surely intended."
Available from oldbridgemusic.com
IRISH MUSIC MAGAZINE, September, 2021
"In the future when we re-evaluate the cultural impact of the Pandemic, this album will be a shoo-in for any discussion of what was achieved by acoustic musicians in these troubled times. Veteran guitar player, Chris Newman is more than versatile, having mastered Bluegrass and Swing Jazz professional, well before he became a leading light in Celtic music. Here he masters another genre altogether, the classical music of Johannes Sebastian Bach. Bach is without doubt the most important composer of the 18th century, his 1722 Well Tempered Klavier is the bedrock on which modern tuning systems and chord progressions are based. That work, in all 24 keys, was more than an academic exercise, it was musical. Melody is the front and centre of many of Bach's pieces, but their inherent complexity means that you have to be an advanced player to even attempt them. Newman is certainly an advanced practitioner, the big surprise is he learnt all the pieces on this lockdown project by ear; it was a painstaking bar by bar exercise. He also arranged and transposed them, choosing to play this music on the flat-picked steel-string guitar. That alone is both a first for this music and a major technical achievement, as some of Bach's works not only feature tumbling runs but also complex counterpoint and cross rhythms, hard to do with a one-line plectrum. Judge for yourself the skill involved as Newman transposes an Excerpt From Cello Suite No 1 In G Major, to D major. This is perhaps the best known of Bach's cello works, having appeared many times as background music and on TV commercials. Newman is kaleidoscopic on the six- minute opening Allegro Excerpt from Violin Sonata in G, playing here with complete musicality and joy. This feeling permeates throughout the entire album, with the works flowing effortlessly into one another, for example in the three-part Violin Partita in D minor. Newman's interpretations have a sense of direction, this music always has somewhere to go. Chris has done the heavy lifting and with many of the tracks under 3 minutes, it wouldn't be beyond a competent guitarist to learn these pieces from his Breaking Bach album. Newman shows that with time, enthusiasm, diligent work and a lifetime of talent behind you, it's more than possible to break new ground."
FOLK WALES * * * * *
...and here is a transcript of the review:
***** FIVE STAR CHOICE! *****
I consider that I’m not a religious guy, but I definitely make an exception of bowing down and worshipping Chris Newman’s fabulous musicianship and his golden guitar artistry with the wonderful Irish harper Máire Ní Chathasaigh. But in March 2020, along with just about every other artist everywhere, Chris found himself completely without live work due to the global covid pandemic. He writes in the album sleeve notes: “Regular gigs in arts centres, village halls, folk clubs, music societies, churches and festivals, as well as every overseas tour, simply vanished overnight. With zero warning we all had completely empty diaries with no prospect of knowing when things might return to normal.”
After a brief period of wondering “what on earth do we do now?” it occurred to Chris that this would be an ideal time to work on a scheme that had been on his mind for some time. He went into the Old Bridge studio – which he and Máire own – to make a recording and interpret twelve pieces written by Johann Sebastian Bach on a flatpicked steel-strung guitar – and this is the commendable result.
Bach, born in Eisenach, Germany in 1685 and died in 1650, is regarded as one of the greatest composers of the late Baroque period. He is revered for his instrumental compositions such as the Cello Suites and Brandenburg Concertos, keyboard works such as the Goldberg Variations, The Well-Tempered Clavier and the Toccata and Fugue in D minor and vocal music such as the St Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor. However, Chris rises above Bach’s substantial works with stupendous ability and masterful empathy; and the first track is the dazzling ‘Allegro’, the nearly seven-minute shower-of-notes excerpt from the Violin Sonata No 3 in C Major, BWV 1005, which is utterly breathtaking and something of a tour de force to learn. Chris totally commands and coaxes his guitar to new heights; Bach never composed for the flatpick, but Chris’s sheer mastery makes the listener believe that the venerable composer was missing out somewhere. This piece is the more remarkable; Chris admits that he doesn’t read music, and that “memorising these tunes has been something of a challenge.” Challenge? It’s a major triumph!
The excerpts from the ‘Cello Suite No 1 in G Major, BWV 1007, form three tunes which have been transcribed from G major to D major – the sedate ‘Prelude’, the gay ‘Courante’ and the tripping ‘Gigue’. The Flute Partita in A Minor, BWV 1013, consists of four outstanding tracks; ‘Allemande’, ‘Corrente’, ‘Sarabande’ and the pretty ‘Bourée Anglaise’. Chris leads the virtual audience through three excerpts from the Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor – ‘Allemande’, ‘Corrente’ and ‘Gigue’ – with impeccable alacrity and considerable skill.
‘Allegro’, the excerpt from the Violin Sonata No 2 in A Minor, brings to a satisfying and scintillating end what has been a completely fascinating and demanding project; Bach’s intricate switchback compositions would surely tax musicians’ minds and the courage, but Chris has proudly shown that he’s the first – and the only – flatpick guitarist to record the works of the German master with an impressive album. Five stars to him!
SPIRAL EARTH * * * *
28 October 2021
...and here is a transcript of the review:
"With a decent pun for a title, Chris Newman flat picks his way through a selection of Bach’s sonatas. Newman’s guitar playing is of course exemplary in all kinds of genres but here he set the bar high so aiming for territory normally associated with John Williams or Julian Bream. The thing is Newman’s guitar uses steel not nylon strings and that makes these delicate pieces harder to convey, it took him a year of lock downs and much solo noodling to get matters straight. When you’ve his frame of mind which says ‘why not?’ with regularity, then genre hopping and fusion seems somehow natural. To add frisson, Chris doesn’t read music which made isolating the melodies harder as most are written for flutes, violins and cellos. He even had a guitar built especially for the project, that’s what you call commitment!
So to the music… as you might expect from a player of his standard, the picking is filigree light, notes fly from his guitar as he rounds on what is basically a classical repertoire more suited to solo instrumentalists with orchestral backing. Twelve tracks sweep by in unplugged splendour, Newman obviously a player who refuses to be bound by expectations is an across the board artist whose experience in roots, jazz and yes, even comedy means that whilst this was work, it was also an undoubted pleasure. If you’re going to pin me down and threaten me to make a choice, I’ll opt for the delicacy of ‘Bourree Anglaise,’ or closer ‘ Allegro,’ which is so tricksy it’d tie lesser strummers’ fingers in knots.
That Chris Newman’s in a class of his own should come as no surprise, just be thankful there’s no side to him and you’re as likely to catch him in a village hall as a concert hall. Virtuoso and down to earth."
Here's a link to the review...
...and here is a transcript of the review:
We’re accustomed these days to guitar settings of classical music being performed on fingerpicked nylon or gut-strung instruments, probably with some clever tunings. For his new album, Breaking Bach, veteran guitarist Chris Newman does away with all that and here we have excerpts from five works by Johann Sebastian Bach flatpicked on a steel strung acoustic guitar. Chris has chosen carefully, selecting pieces that were written for monophonic instruments, that is those with single melody line, and that’s enough of the technical stuff.
Chris begins with the Allegro from ‘Violin Sonata No 3’. It’s the longest piece on the album, a fast tempo and something of a tour de force to learn – Chris confesses that he doesn’t read music so has to do things the hard way and with the restrictions imposed on us last year he had plenty of time.. It’s also an exciting way to kick off the album. Next come three excerpts from ‘Cello Suite No 1’ which has been transcribed from G major to D major. Chris doesn’t actually explain why he’s done this but if you ask him I’m sure he’ll tell you. I particularly like the final section, ‘Gigue’.
‘Flute Partita in A minor’ is one of those compositions in which the notes tumble over each other like a waterfall, particularly the opening ‘Allemande’, although the penultimate ‘Sarabande’ slows down a bit and leads smoothly into ‘Bourée Anglaise’, a very pretty tune. A similarly reflective mood carries over into the first excerpt from ‘Violin Partita No 2’. Then, the elegant and stately ‘Corrente’ leads into another ‘Gigue’ which picks up the pace a little more.
Finally, Chris takes metaphorical deep breath to finish with another ‘Allegro’, this one from ‘Violin Sonata No 2’. The tempo is not quite as fast as the opener but if Chris confessed that he actually fingerpicked on this track, I’d believe him – the notes seem to chase each other up and down the fretboard.
Breaking Bach is a lovely album to listen to and when you’ve finished enjoying it you can admire the technique, marvel at the work that’s gone into arranging and performing the music and then enjoy it all over again.
JOURNAL OF MUSIC, August 2021
Here is a link to the piece (not a review)
Excerpts from Violin Partita No 3 in E major, BWV 1006
2. Gavotte en rondeau
Excerpt from Violin Sonata No 3 in C major, BWV 1005
Excerpts from Cello Suite No 1 in G major, BWV 1007 (transposed to D major)
Flute Partita in A minor, BWV 1013
12. Bourrée anglaise
Excerpts from Violin Partita No 2 in D minor, BWV 1004
Excerpt from Violin Sonata No 2 in A minor, BWV 1003