Bach & Friends, 2010

by | Feb 13, 2010 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Bach & Friends, 2010

2-Hour documentary on Johann Sebastian Bach (2 DVDs)
Director: Michael Lawrence
Interviews & performances by: Joshua Bell, Bobby McFerrin, Philip Glass, Bela Fleck, Hilary Hahn, Emerson String Quartet, Edgar Meyer, Manuel Barrueco, Chris Thile, Simone Dinnerstein, Jake Shimabukuro, The Swingle Singers, John Bayless, Matt Haimovitz, Peter Schickele, Richard Stoltzman, Zueill Bailey, Joao Carlos Martins, Felix Hell, Mike Hawley, Uri Caine, John Q. Walker & others
Studio: Michael Lawrence Films [mlfilms.com]
Video: 16:9 color
Audio: English PCM stereo
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese
Extras: Individual sections on each performer, list of all selections performed; Bonus DVD: Entire straight musical performances from the film, list of all selections
Length: 116 minutes
Rating: *****

There have been other filmed documentaries on Bach, but this is the best I’ve ever seen. We had a news item about it back in 2007. The list of performers playing and giving their own personal details and views about J.S. Bach is wonderful – most of them exactly the sort of performers I would have chosen if I were making such a film. The use of performers out of the straight classical genre is especially good; people like ukeleleist Jake Shimabukuro, mandolinist Chris Thile, jazz pianist Uri Caine, The Swingle Singers and multi-musical-generalist Bobby McFerrin give the documentary a more exciting and contemporary slant.

The mix of the actual musical performances with the commentaries by the performers and musicologists is very well done; getting some of the background of the composer’s difficult life in small bits in between the fine music is a good way to go.  Then later you can enjoy the full performances on the second DVD if you wish.  As a couple of the performers state, when they play Bach people who have no interest in or knowledge of classical music whatsoever get turned on and fascinated to hear more Bach. One of the pianists – Mike Hawley – turned out in the interviews to be superb at bringing viewers up to date on important details of Bach’s life, so that is his main job in the film, although he also performs one piano selection. Although I do have to disagree with his assertion that Bach was the center of European serious music life in his time; that honor went to Telemann.  It seems at least a quick mention should also have been made about Mendelssohn’s hand in bringing the ignored music of Bach to the public’s attention.  Whether viewers are into classical music or not, the film will convince them that Bach has been the most influential composer in history.

The cinematography is creative, with many unusual closeups of the performances, and striking environments – ornate European halls, beautiful studios, and in some a room in a NYC hi-rise with views of the skyscrapers in the background. The sound is also first rate – the Bach organ fugue performed by young Felix Hell (Reference Recordings) is both a visual treat with his amazing foot-dance on the pedals, but also an audiophile demo track with plenty of room-shaking deep bass and a fine pseudo-surround using ProLogic II. Thanks to Michael for using PCM stereo instead of DD.

I think my favorite performance in the documentary was classical/pop improviser John Bayless in a two-piano improvisation on a Bach theme. Altogether a terrific music documentary that should appeal to a very wide-ranging audience.

 — John Sunier

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