Johann Sebastian Bach is truly recognised once more in both word and in beautiful works, a film full of praise and deeply felt performances of music by the great Lutheran Kapellmeister. Michael Lawrence, the creator and producer of this film has done wonders. What is surprising is the range of instruments he has included - going far beyond an organ and a string quartet to incorporate a ukulele, guitar, banjo and mandolin and interpretations of Bach’s music that he originally wrote for other instruments.
Chris Thile performs the Prelude from the Violin Partita #3 on a mandolin and Manuel Barrueco overwhelms with a fugue from the Violin Sonata #1 played on a guitar. It is such a rational construction, Bach’s humanity shows thru; evidence of his greatness that his music can be satisfactorily transferred to any instrument.
There is a collection of solo instrumental music by artists, famous and infamous on: violin, cello, bass, piano, organ, clarinet, and a small choral group, The Swingle Singers whose voices are like musical instruments. They perform an instrumental work, a cappella Badinerie (Orchestral Suite #2), with simple syllables, as directed by their founder Dr Ward Swingle. Felix Hell also plays the organ. Bobby McFerrin, who sings in the style of Bach, uses his voice as an instrument. The joy of improvising permeates this film and demonstrates that in Bach’s day most musicians were able to make music like jazz players do today.
“I am here to tell you, there ain’t nobody like Bach!” says Edgar Meyer, bassist and composer, who found technical challenges in bringing the cello suites to the bass viol. He plays the wonderful d minor Prelude to Suite No 2. He influenced other folk players to get involved in Bach’s music like Béla Fleck on her banjo.
John Bayless is another improviser and we learn about his brain scan while he is improvising in Bach’s style on the keyboard-but not with the brilliance of Bach. Steve Schwartz comments on this section of the film “Bach had the ability to understand almost at once the contrapuntal possibilities of a theme. His son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, relates the story of the two of them attending an organ recital and the old man predicting the course of the fugal improvisation and nudging him when each prediction proved correct. It’s not just improvisation, but an ability and a facility ultimately beyond our ken”.
Richard Stoltzman plays his clarinet in the nave of a cathedral in a meditative performance of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy written for keyboard. He creates music from heaven. Robert Tiso plays the Toccata and Fugue in D minor on glass harp-this requires setting up umpteen varied glasses of water and running your finger along the edge of the glass to make it sing.
Mike Hawley talks about Bach’s life as well as playing a most amazing Partita No. 2, Sinfonia Grave & Andante packed with humour on the piano. Simone Dinnerstein interprets the Goldberg Variations and the Aria expertly. Zuill Bailey plays the Cello Suite #1 (Couran) demonstrating how harmony is subtly implied-though the cello is basically a one-line melody instrument. Fascinating!
The Emerson String Quartet plays Bach’s unfinished The Art of the Fugue (unfinished because he died). João Carlos Martins is a pianist who tragically lost the use of his hands. He tells the story of when Bach went to prison for a month and while in prison (with no instruments) created the Well-Tempered Clavier-he then proceeds to play the Largo from the Concerto in f. He says that after he lost the use of his hands, “Bach kept me alive”.
To show how even the young gain inspiration from Bach, a preteen, Hilda Huang, renders Contrapunctus from The Art of Fugue 1, 9, 10 and 15 and talks about the music with extraordinary maturity. It is lovely when Hilda Huang plays in a retirement home; the faces of the old people listening to her play in her sensitive manner are touching.
Hilary Hahn plays magnificently Violin Sonata #2 (Grave) with such grace and expressive power; we can see she is deeply moved and why. “Bach’s invention of melodic line within harmony is so imaginative and progressive, with certain structures in which he can free his imagination radically.
He was active as violinist and he could play all the keyboards and the flute as well as the viola”. Hahn enjoys playing meditative music and having audience rapport. Another great player is Joshua Bell who delivers the Chaconne in D minor for violin.
Just to have fun, the creator of P.D.Q. Bach, Peter Schickele, is here with the only piece ever written for tuba and violin. Schickele, the traditional joker poker, “the pimple on the face of music”, wrote a pervertimento for bicycle, bagpipe and balloons. Schickele clears us up on periods of music, the alcohol technique of music dating and how to compose with tracing paper. Matt Haimovitz takes his Bach cello suites to bars and nightclubs and finds a very receptive audience, reminding us that much of Bach’s music was first performed in coffee houses or Prince Leopold’s residence in Coethen in eastern Germany.
Eugene Drucker explains that Bach has used his very personal signature using the letters B A C H, “h” being the German way of saying b natural. Bach was going blind and had to use a transcriber, but he put a lifetime of wisdom into his works - an astonishing amount of music came from his pen and almost every musician who lived after him benefited; learned from him.
The composer Philip Glass says that the music was inside Bach fully formed just waiting to come out. Chris Thile says “everyone, really everyone” will take to Bach’s music. The concert of the music in this documentary will be aired during the Maitisong Festival (with no dialogue).
Bach & Friends is two hours long. It is rated Universal. The director is Michael Lawrence. The cinematographer is Richard Chisolm.
The editor is Michael R. Lawrence. The music is by J.S. Bach and the many, many players. The GFS is grateful to Michael Lawrence for providing this film. http://www.mlfilms.com/productions/bach_project