Early Music Media Review



Bach & Friends ... Lot's of 'em

February 22, 2010 - Durham, NC:


Bach & friends: two hour documentary on Johann Sebastian Bach, with Bobby McFerrin, Philip Glass, Béla Fleck, Hilary Hahn, the Emerson String Quartet, Edgar Meyer, Manuel Barrueco, Chris Thile, Jake Shimabukuto, the Swingle Singers, John Bayless, Peter Schickele, Richard Stoltzman, Zuill Bailey, Sid Meier, João Carlos Martins, Felix Hell, Mike Hawley, Uri Caine, Tim Page, Charles J. Limb, M.D., Hilda Huang, Anatoly Larkin, John Q. Walker, Harlan Brothers, Andrew Talle, & Christoph Wolff; Michael Lawrence Films,mlfilms.com, 120 minutes, $39.95 + $4 USPS First Class.

"There is something about the music of Bach that does transcend and it really makes you feel alive and it sort of tells you about life and about the world in a way that nothing else can." — Joshua Bell

"There's such a humanity to Bach and every possible human emotion from joy and humor and laughter to sorrow and loss and somehow reaches to the heart of human nature." — Matt Haimovitz

"My love for Bach and my feelings that I have are as close to religion as I get. I would say his music is kind of cosmic. You know, if you go and lie down in the country at night and you look up at the stars and you don't know what any of it means and you're just looking at this huge vista, I would say that his music is like that." — Simone Dinnerstein

"The music of Bach represents a sense of cosmic harmony, a sense of oneness with the universe. I can't help but think that he has lifted all of us up onto a higher spiritual plane along with his own striving toward that plane." — Eugene Drucker

These are just a sampling of the clips that launch us into Michael Lawrence's documentary film Bach & friends. It is almost two hours long and features an impressive line-up of contemporary artists, most of them soloists of the highest caliber

The documentary is weighty with adulation of J.S.B. and some astonishing performances of many masterpieces. The most jaw-dropping for me was organist Felix Hell's performance of the Fugue in D, S.532. You can hardly watch this guy's pedal work without falling out of your chair. Simone Dinnerstein's performance of the opening theme of the Goldberg Variations left me overwhelmed and breathless. The adulation and the performances are great. Even the stuff that flirts with kitsch (Bayless, McFerrin, the Swingle Singers) does not diminish the point of this film — Bach's music is great, and our lives are enriched by it from whatever direction it comes to us.

My only disappointment is that nowhere in the entire documentary is there even a mention that the greatest level of genius that Bach achieved (in the opinion of many) is in his choral works: the cantatas, the passions, the oratorios, and the B minor Mass — but had this body of work been addressed, it would have taken several more DVDs, so this is not intended as criticism of Lawrence's achievement, just regret. Still, I feel this set should have deserved at least an acknowledgement of the monumental vocal output of the cantor of Leipzig. Perhaps another time....

Bach penned everything he wrote in an unassuming consciousness that the God of his understanding was actually listening. Even the so-called secular pieces were sacred to him. It is in the solo works: the organ works, The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Goldberg Variations, the violin sonatas and partitas, and the cello suites that we meet Bach intimately and personally. Here we have one musician and one instrument communicating, first of all, with each other and then conveying meaning and aspiration to others who may be in the same space.

Bach's music was not separate from the man himself. Therefore when he and Maria Barbara lost both of their twins less than a month after they were born, all of the emotion of that monumental grief had to have found its way into his music. When Bach got down on the floor in rough and tumble play with his children, that too was expressed in his music. His passionate love life, his concerns about providing for his family, his conflicts with civil authorities, his taste for good German beer, his delight at the excellence of a new organ, his satisfaction in the accomplishments of his students — all of this had to find its way somehow into his music and especially in these solo pieces.

Of course Bach was an acclaimed organist, but he also was an accomplished player of the violin, the viola, the cello, the flute and more. One gets the impression in all the solo works that Bach was not "composing" but was instead writing down the instrument's part of the conversation as he worked out the meaning of human existence for himself.

In Bach & friends, there are a few insights into the character of Bach and how his personal makeup fit into and influenced the music he composed.  This is not a documentary about Bach's life but rather a documentary about Bach's music and as such it provides an appreciable sampling of the music that is the foundation on which most of what we call music today is based.

The second DVD in the set is comprised of complete performances of the sample works without commentary or interruption. The sound and picture quality are superb. The editing flows comfortably. There is enough pure joy in this set to make it worth having on your shelf. It is in standard DVD format, not available in Blu-Ray or HD. The only purchase source at this point in time seems to be the website listed at the top of this review. If you are interested, there are several trailer clips on YouTube. Just go to the site above and it will lead you there.