Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) never left Germany but became internationally respected by his peers during his lifetime and a symbol of pure musicianship for future generations. A virtuoso organist, harpsichordist, and violinist/violist who may have also played lute, as a composer his mastery of counterpoint and fugal writing remain unmatched, yet he was also open to the influences of contemporary Italian and French composers.
Born into a highly musical family in Eisenach, Germany, Bach became organist at the Neukirche in Arnstadt in 1703 at the age of 18. His first major appointment was as court organist to Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, in 1708; six years later the Duke made him Concertmaster. In 1717 Bach became Kapellmeister and music director to the music-loving Prince Leopold of Anhalt in Cöthen, where Bach wrote much of his greatest secular music. Bach's duties switched to writing choral and organ music for use in church services and training the choirs of several churches when he took the position of Cantor of Leipzig in 1723, where he spent the rest of his life. Suffering from failing vision due to cataracts in his later years, he went blind in 1749 after a crude operation and died the following year, having left an unparalleled legacy.
Suggesting a mere ten releases covers only a small percentage of Bach's prolific output -- there are over 200 cantatas alone. These choices sample each of the major areas of his compositional creativity: concertos, solo instrumental pieces, and choral works.
Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-51; Four Orchestral Suites, BWV 1066-69
English Concert; Trevor Pinnock
Bach's orchestral writing provides the most congenial access to his style. His famous set of six concerti grossi, titled the Brandenburg Concertos after he sent them to the Margrave of Brandenburg, offer considerable variety, with different soloists and indeed different lineups of the chamber group as a whole. It is difficult to recommend any Brandenburgs set without reservation; the most thrilling period-performance/original-instrument renditions have an abrasive horn tone in the First, but the sets with more smooth horn playing also tend to seem too tame. The English Concert's suave 1982 recordings are the best compromise. Leader Trevor Pinnock takes the harpsichord part throughout, with a virtuoso performance when featured in No. 5 (the first keyboard concerto in history). Many of the other soloists are now stars of the original-instrument scene, including violinist Simon Standage (who shines while taking dazzling runs in the final movement of No. 4 at a challenging speed), natural horn player Anthony Halstead, trumpeter Michael Laird, recorder player Philip Pickett (whose own later version as leader is rough-hewn), flutist Lisa Beznosiuk, violist Trevor Jones, and viola da gambist Charles Medlam. Tempos are often fleet without seeming rushed, exhilarating in fast movements yet sufficiently lyrical in slow movements. This three-CD set also includes Bach's Orchestral Suites; where the Brandenburgs show the influence of Italian composers such as Vivaldi, the Suites reflect the more galant, dance-form derived French style. (In the Suites, Pinnock could be faulted for overly fast speeds; a most amiable yet hardly ponderous one-CD alternative is offered by Sir Neville Marriner leading the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.)
The Concertos for One and Two Harpsichords, Strings & Continuo, BWV 1052-58, 1060-62
Raymond Leppard, Andrew Davis, Philip Ledger/English Chamber Orchestra/Leppard
Many of Bach's harpsichord concertos were written for the Collegium Musicum he led in Leipzig starting in 1729. If not adapted from other composers, they were recastings of his earlier compositions, with the exception of BWV 1061. In fact, prior to these works, nobody was writing concertos for harpsichord and orchestra as such. Bach's works, in which some of his sons were undoubtedly soloists, influenced future piano concertos by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and Johann Christian Bach, and by extension the piano concertos of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. All of J.S. Bach's harpsichord concertos on this set are in the three-movement form he had learned from the Italian concerto composers, two fast movements surrounding a slow movement. While Raymond Leppard's harpsichord (along with those of second harpsichordists Andrew Davis in BWV 1055 and 1060 and Philip Ledger in BWV 1062) have perhaps been surpassed as advances have been made in restoration and construction over the past two decades, and though the strings are modern instruments, these 1973-74 and 1980/82 recordings -- rhythmically lively without becoming eccentric -- retain their elegant charm and are now a superb two-for-one value.
The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846-893; The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080; A Musical Offering, BWV 1079
The main attraction here is the The Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach's revered two-book set of paired Preludes and Fugues, each book having 24 pairs covering each of the major and minor keys. Bach's mastery of the fugue has never been matched for expressiveness, imagination, variety, and sheer musicality -- never a dry exercise, rather a celebration of celestial order. Harpsichordist Davitt Moroney combines middle-of-the-road common sense regarding Baroque performance practice with sterling technique and great musicality. Collectors preferring a piano version should track down Sviatoslav Richter's set on RCA for profundity, or Glenn Gould's on Columbia/Sony for sparkling insouciance. Moroney's seven-CD box (for the price of four CDs) offers additional landmark works. The Art of Fugue is somewhat drier, but the apex of fugal inventiveness. Unlike those solo harpsichord cycles, A Musical Offering includes flute, violin, and cello in some movements. It resulted from Bach's visit to the court of Frederick the Great, who gave Bach a theme and asked him to improvise on it, which Bach did -- but when Frederick asked him to improvise a six-voice fugue on the trickily chromatic tune, Bach begged off. Later he wrote down the three-voice Ricercar (the archaic term for a strict fugue) he'd improvised and added the requested six-voice Ricercar, some canons also using the theme, and a lovely Trio Sonata.
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
The "Goldberg" Variations -- more properly, Aria with 30 Variations,- part IV of the Clavier-Übung ("keyboard exercises") -- is the Bach keyboard work most popular with modern audiences, thanks to two landmark renditions by pianist Glenn Gould. Written specifically for a two-manual harpsichord, which makes it easier to deliver the counterpoint of some cross-hand passages, the work actually varies not the aria, but rather its bass line, a form known as ostinato. Overall, the work is divided down the middle: aria and 15 variations, 15 variations and aria. Variation 16 is even a French-style overture, making the new beginning obvious. But one level down, the piece is organized in 10 groups of three (plus the bracketing aria), with the third of each group being a canon until the last group, when it's replaced by a quodlibet, which contrapuntally incorporates two popular Saxon tunes. The other variations run a wide gamut stylistically: inventions, toccatas, duets and trios, arias, and many dance rhythms, with never a dull moment. In an exemplary rendition on harpsichord, Blandine Verlet takes all repeats and varies her ornamentation the second time through, takes a generally lively but not exaggerated view of tempos, handles registration well, and uses agogic pauses tastefully but not excessively. Those who prefer a piano version are directed to Murray Perahia's, which surpasses even Gould's best version, which was neither of his studio renditions for Columbia, but rather a concert performance at the Salzburg Festival.
In his lifetime, Bach was most widely known as a virtuoso organist, and his compositional output for that instrument was both voluminous and at the core of his musical identity. Heachieved heights in his fugal writing that have never been surpassed, while his freer movements are endlessly inventive. Lionel Rogg's compactly packaged, critically acclaimed, and reasonably priced 12-CD set doesn't quite contain every single one of Bach's organ compositions -- he deliberately omits the concerto transcriptions, and some chorales were discovered 14 years after he recorded it in 1970 -- but has all of the great individual works and collections. He uses the historic Silbermann organ at Arlesheim, Switzerland, built in 1761, a fine-sounding instrument appropriate for Bach's music. While ideas regarding Baroque playing have changed in the past three decades, and Rogg favors a steadier, less inflected beat than has become the vogue among early music specialists, he offers a very enjoyable compromise between the two extreme positions (the highly inflected "authentic performance" approach versus the grave style of traditional German pedagogy). His fast tempos are lively but not breakneck, while his slow tempos are moderate. Those wanting a smaller selection of Bach's organ works more focused on the major pieces will enjoy Rogg's single-CD collection of the Schübler Chorales and four well-known masterpieces: the Toccata & Fugue in D minor, BWV 565(notoriously used in movie versions of The Phantom of the Opera), the Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor, BWV 582; the Fantasia & Fugue in G minor, BWV 542; and the Fantasia & Fugue in C minor, BWV 537.
Sonatas & Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001-06
Bach's set of alternating Sonatas and Partitas (three each) overflow with melody, bravura, and ingenuity in giving the feeling of counterpoint despite the instrument's limitations. The patrician elegance of Nathan Milstein, who uses vibrato and a touch of portamento, may not pass muster with hardcore advocates of authentic Baroque practice, but as violin playing it's awe-inspiring, and his inherently musical precision is ultimately true to Bach's genius. He plays the famed Chaconne, the finale of the Partita No. 2, not as a virtuoso showpiece (though it is) but as an emotionally charged set of proportioned variations. The 1954-56 mono sound is superbly detailed without being overly close on this two-CD set. For digital stereo sound, Aaron Rosand's set on Vox is the top recommendation.
Suites for Solo Cello, BWV 1007-12
Bach's six Suites for Solo Cello operate at an equally inspired level, and are somewhat similar to the Partitas in form. Once again a Russian performer of mainstream bent, rather than a period-instrument user, conquers objections with his transcendent musicality. Mstislav Rostropovich waited until late in his career to record his complete traversal of the set, and the 1991 sonics on these two discs are spectacular yet intimate. His Romantic fervor doesn't distort the music structurally, but those wishing a more authentically Baroque approach could opt instead for Jaap Ter Linden, who uses two fine period instruments.
St. Matthew Passion
Barbara Bonney, Ann Monoyios, Anne Sofie von Otter, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Michael Chance, Howard Crook, Olaf Bär, Cornelius Hauptmann, Andreas Schmidt/Monteverdi Choir, London Oratory Junior Choir, English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
Bach's choral music was at the very center of his creativity, thanks to his devout Lutheranism. There is as much drama, pathos, emotion, and sheer variety in this intensely spiritual, massively structured retelling of the betrayal, trial, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus as in any three or four operas. Unlike many of his peers in Baroque authentic performance practice, Gardiner's sprightly tempos on this three-CD set are not overdone, nor do they come at the expense of the grandeur of the music. The sound is superb, the male soloists are uniformly excellent (the female soloists are good enough in less prominent roles), and the instrumentalists are outstanding. Gardiner's chorus is expressive and supple; accents carry weight without stopping the flow of the phrase.
Mass in B minor
Hillevi Martinpelto, Bernarda Fink, Axel Köhler, Christoph Prégardien, Matthias Görne, Franz-Josef Selig/RIAS-Kammerchor/Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs
This more abstract choral work, which sets the liturgical Latin text of the standard church service (though Bach's text is slightly altered), is less overtly dramatic, though hardly dry: "Et Resurrexit," celebrating the resurrection of Christ, is certainly thrilling. Bach wrote several other masses, but this was his major statement in the form. René Jacobs, also a superb singer at times, restricts himself to conducting on this 1993 production, an "authentic" performance right down to the use of a male alto (Axel Köhler, whose full-voiced rendition has none of the hooty quality that sometimes afflicts such performances). The accents and tempos are lively but not overdone, all the soloists are fine, and Jacobs shapes an expressive reading, nearly perfect in its balance of delicacy and power where appropriate.
Cantatas, Volume VI: Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140; Jesu, der du meine Seele, BWV 78; Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80
Catherine Bott, Daniel Taylor, Jeffrey Thomas, William Sharp/American Bach Soloists/Thomas
Two of Bach's best-known choral cantatas from his Leipzig period are here. BWV 80, written for the Reformation Festival, aptly makes much use of Martin Luther's popular hymn "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God). BWV 140, for the 27th Sunday in Trinity (which rarely occurs) also features a favorite hymn, Philipp Nicolai's "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" (Sleepers, Wake, the Voice is Calling). The affection modern audiences hold for these works stems not only from the familiar tunes but also the fact that these are grander conceptions than Bach's many cantatas for solo voices without choir, with more variety in their respective eight and seven movements. BWV 78, Jesu, der du meine Seele
(Jesus, Who by Your Bitter Death), is also named for the chorale tune that opens and closes the work. It's a tension -filled cantata for the 14th Sunday after Trinity and is most famous for its agile duet between the soprano and alto soloists, but also boasts a memorably anguished aria for tenor and a dramatic aria for bass. Thomas, who is also the tenor soloist, moves the proceedings along with great alacrity. Collectors wishing a complete set of elegance and suavity that uses period performance practices will find Ton Koopman's on Erato a good choice; the spiny power and high-strung emotionality of the first complete set, by Nikolaus Harnoncourt on Teldec, remains quite compelling, and John Eliot Gardiner's more recent one (begun on Archiv and then, when its owner Universal philistinely withdrew funding, moved to Gardiner's own Soli Deo Gloria
) is also worth considering. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.