For Love of Bach
The Music Scene: Donald Sosin
March, 04, 2010
There is surely no composer whose work transcends cultural, geographical and temporal boundaries as does Johann Sebastian Bach’s. Just in time for the 325th anniversary of his birth on March 21, comes a terrific new 2-DVD set celebrating many facets of his work.
The brainchild of Michael Lawrence, a conservatory-trained guitar and banjo player turned award-winning documentary filmmaker, “The Bach Project” features performances and interviews with leading musicians including Bobby McFerrin, Simone Dinnerstein, Edgar Meyer, Philip Glass, Peter Schickele, Richard Stolzman, Hillary Hahn, the Swingle Singers, Béla Fleck, Matt Haimovitz and the Emerson Quartet.
The first DVD contains the musicians’ commentary interspersed with musical clips, along with keen insights from pianist/scholars like Mike Hawley, who contemplates what the world would be like had Bach not lived, perish the thought.
On the second disc are the full performances, including Felix Hell’s brilliant D major Fugue rendition, and the only recording of violinist Joshua Bell playing the exalted “Chaconne” from the Partita No. 2. Dinnerstein’s look at the “Goldberg Variations” is especially poignant, and her playing evokes the standards set by the formidable recordings of Rosalyn Tureck and Glenn Gould. Regrettably, there is no example of Tureck’s on this release (although there are clips of her playing online as part of guitarist Sharon Isbin’s interview, which is in a planned sequel. Follow links at mlfilms.com).
Gould shunned live performances for much of his later career, but you can see him playing “live” on this disc as well.
My grandfather once told me of his amazement at hearing a concert at New York’s Town Hall with an Ampico, an early electronic device which, unlike a player piano, did not just duplicate the notes played, but recorded and played back the minute changes in pressure and velocity of the keys as a pianist played, and was able to reproduce those subtleties through its mechanism.
John Q. Walker of Zenph Studios has brought this concept into the computer era through analyzing audio recordings and converting them into “a description of how the musician played the day it was recorded.”
Every facet of the original (except for Gould’s idiosyncratic humming) is preserved this way and the result is fascinating and a bit spooky.
“The Bach Project” explores the enormous variety of Bach’s music and its adaptability to instruments he never wrote for, such as the banjo and well, the piano. There are a few omissions: no vocal music, nor any reference to the harpsichord, to Wanda Landowska, or the importance of her work in reviving Baroque music in general. And a couple of misfires, such as the gaudy 4-hand improvisation by John Bayless and Anatoly Larkin on the “Sleepers Awake” theme that crosses over into Liberace territory, complete with head rolling and hair tossing. On Disc 2 Bayless does his version of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” combined with “Amazing Grace,” which is more pleasant to the ear if not to the eye. But by and large, this is an absorbing and elegant documentary that ought to be shown in music classes, and on PBS.
The high point of the film for me is the stunning final segment in which the Emerson Quartet discusses and plays part of Bach’s last, unfinished work, “Art of the Fugue.” Here the sounds are coupled with computer-generated fractals that evoke the distant reaches of space, to which Bach’s music has been sent on the Voyager I spacecraft.
Samples of all this material, including extra footage, are online (along with a link to purchasing the DVDs, $39.95 plus shipping), at mlfilms.com. A free public screening of the 2-hour documentary will take place at Noble Horizons in Salisbury, March 21, at 3 p.m.
Another Bach celebration takes place the night before with Close Encounters, March 20, at 6 p.m. The program features cellist Yehuda Hanani, violinist Cordelia Hagmann and pianist James Tocco in an an all-Bach pre-birthday celebration that includes many transcriptions from the Romantic era. Tickets at cewm.org or at the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington, MA.
© Copyright 2010 by TCExtra.com
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