I was intrigued to be sent a copy of Bach & Friends, a new DVD which billed itself as "World-class musicians reflect on the power and genius of Bach's music and perform his greatest masterpieces". The DVD turns out to be a series of interviews with a variety of musicians in which each tells us something about Bach and the way it has affected them emotionally and musically. The musicians are all American and by no means all from the classical mainstream: established classical stars like Joshua Bell and Hilary Hahn are interleaved with musicians from the folk and bluegrass worlds like Edgar Meyer and Béla Fleck, as well as unclassifiables like Bobby McFerrin. There's even a place for Bach's lesser known children C.P.U. Bach (a computer program which composes in Bach's style) and the indescribable P.D.Q. Bach (look him up on YouTube). The interviews happen over snippets of performance, with a separate bonus DVD giving the performances in full with no dialogue.
First, I should say that I enjoyed the DVD enormously. I've always had a tremendously intense emotional response to much of the Bach music being performed and have always had difficulty putting it into words. It's therefore reassuring and uplifting to hear such a collection of great musicians who get the same sort of impact and strive to communicate it to the viewer. Lawrence's simple and direct style makes the intensity of the passion felt by these musicians quite tangible, as do many of the clips of them playing. Clearly, the act of playing Bach's music has an effect that one can only describe as mystical. Some of the performances are wonderful: I was particularly taken by mandolin player Chris Thile's rendering of the prelude from the third Violin Partita.
I also learnt some new things, the most notable of which were a focus on Bach as an improviser and the number of interviewees, most notably Philip Glass, who felt that Bach could not have worked on his composition in the way that most composers do - that the music was somehow inside him fully formed and that his task was to capture this outpouring on paper.
That said, the choice of interviewees and material is highly selective. The film focuses almost entirely on Bach's solo instrumental music: the piano and organ works and the violin and cello suites/partitas/sonatas. There's not a voice to be heard (apart from McFerrin and the Swingle Singers, who are using their voices as instruments), and apart from the odd piece of organ music, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Bach had never entered a church: not a word about any of the orchestral or choral music. It's also a very American work: there's a (well deserved) stray across the border for an extended essay on Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, but European and Asian musicians are not represented.
I found myself wondering quite who was the intended target. The movie feels like a polemic aimed at explaining the importance and wonder of Bach to the uninitiated: a worthy cause, but I suspect that uninitiates may not be flocking to buy the DVD. Which is a pity, as the music is fantastic and the film-making very revealing.
If you're in the US, you can buy the DVD from Michael Lawrence Films (http://www.mlfilms.com/productions/bach_project/purchase). My copy was an NTSC "all regions" edition which played fine on my computer. I'm not sure if they do a PAL version for European DVD players.
26th February 2010