One can have too much of a good thing. Radio 3's recent Baroque Spring has left even me thinking once or twice that I might have heard enough glorious embellishment, clever patterning and decorous melancholy for the time being. Putting on good manners all the time will eventually make even the best of us want to be gratuitously rude.
But there was no such problem with John Eliot Gardiner's film on the life of Bach, last night BBC 2, http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01rrgg6/Bach_A_Passionate_Life/. It was well-organized, illustrated with performances by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, and beautifully photographed with lots of German snow on the leafless trees near relevant churches.
Gardiner set out to discover the 'real' Bach beneath or inside the music, the personality we seem to know so little of within the music we know so well. It's been done before with Bach's great rival for the title of 'Greatest Artist of All Time', Shakespeare, and perhaps what happens is that we all find the hero we were looking for but that is not to cast any aspersions on Gardiner's ideas, his account of the life or the several insights he takes from documentary evidence.
An early fracas with a bassoon player has Bach deliberately giving the woodwind man a fiendishly difficult part and it resulted in the composer drawing his sword. I hadn't imagined Bach carrying a sword for a start. There is a manuscript with ink smeared on it where Kuhnau has corrected his mis-spelt Bacch, the ink allegedly providing forensic proof that Bach looked over the shoulder of his copyist, saw the error and cuffed him over the head. We saw letters in which Bach is chronically vexed and frustrated and everything is somebody else's fault. And, perhaps best of all, was the submission that The Art of Fugue doesn't end just as he has introduced the theme on B-A-C-H and then died, but that he left it like that deliberately (and then died).
For anyone totally devoted to the cause- and my own reaction was to start making a mental list of all the CD's I needed to order- they could use the red button to access five hours' worth of the complete performances of the pieces from which the extracts had been taken. I don't think anyone should criticize the BBC for anything when they can provide things like that.
I haven't been gripped by anything on television for quite some time, well, apart from the finishes of a few of the races I won on at Cheltenham the other week, and I can't immediately think of any other programme I have enjoyed quite so much in recent years. For many years. Perhaps ever.
What a tremendous programme. I vote we put the licence fee up by 50% if we can have more like it.
- David Green
- Available from David Green (Books), THE PERFECT MURDER, £2.50; RE-READ, the Selected Poems from 2004, WALKING ON WATER and THE LAST OF THE GREAT DANCERS . E-mail to get any of them. The Perfect Murder, Walking on Water and Re-read are available to download in kindle editions from Amazon