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Top 10 Bach CDs and MP3s for Your Classical Music Collection

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) viewed himself primarily as a craftsman and a servant of God. The majority of his compositions are sacred choral or organ works which he wrote specifically for use in church services; his instrumental masterpieces mostly come from a brief stint in the service of a prince in Cöthen, when he was asked to write works for entertainment at court. Bach's music is considered to be the culmination of the Baroque style, especially in his use of counterpoint (the combination of multiple lines of melody in different instruments).

Bach was the most distinguished of a long line of professional musicians. He received his early musical training from his father and took his first professional post as church organist before he turned twenty. As the years went by, Bach gradually moved up in the Lutheran musical world. From 1717 to 1723 Bach was music director at a prince's court in Cöthen. In 1723 he was appointed cantor in Leipzig, a position he held for the rest of his life. By the time of his death he was known as the best composer in Protestant Germany.

After Bach's death his works suffered in obscurity for nearly a century; the composer Felix Mendelssohn helped to lead the"Bach revival" of the mid-nineteenth century, and his works have remained an essential part of the repertoire ever since. Beginning in the 1960s, the "period performance" movement advocated a return to the performing styles and practices of Bach's time, and such performances have given us a greater understanding of the composer and his music.

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1 Brandenburg Concertos -- Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Baroque bravura. Review...

2 Goldberg Variations -- Glenn Gould
From a simple song to complex counterpoint. Review...

3 B Minor Mass -- John Eliot Gardiner
A summary of everything Bach knew about choral writing. Review...

4 The Well-Tempered Clavier -- Rosalyn Tureck
A cornucopia of counterpoint. Review...

5 Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin -- Henryk Szeryng
Making a single instrument sound like four. Review...

6 Cello Suites -- Mstislav Rostropovich
A rite of passage for any cellist. Review...

7 Saint Matthew Passion -- John Eliot Gardiner
A moving portrait of Jesus's last days. Review...

8 Cantatas -- Joshua Rifkin
A sacred sampler. Review...

9 Toccata and Fugue, Passacaglia and Fugue -- E. Power Biggs
Gems of improvisation on the organ. Review...

10 Orchestral Suites -- Sir Neville Marriner
Instrumental interludes. Review...

11 Violin Concertos -- Arthur Grumiaux, Herman Krebbers, Heinz Holliger
Bach emulates Vivaldi. Review...

12 The Art of Fugue -- Emerson String Quartet
The master of fugue at his most inspired. Review...


Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-1051
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

There is no better introduction to the Baroque style than these six orchestral masterpieces by Johann Sebastian Bach. The works are in the style of the concerto grosso, which is an orchestral genre that features a dialogue between small groups of soloists and the full orchestra. Taken as a whole, the six concertos explore the diverse tonal possibilities of both solo instruments and orchestra. The first two concertos are festive, featuring horns and oboes, while the third is written for strings only and is more meditative. The fourth and fifth concertos feature virtuoso playing of the violin and harpsichord respectively, while the concluding sixth -- probably the most famous of the set -- has a jaunty atmosphere and emphasizes ensemble playing over solo work. The conductorless Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment gives a delightful performance on authentic Baroque instruments, and at less than $12 for two CDs this set is clearly a first choice.

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Glenn Gould, piano

Legend has it that Bach wrote this set of variations for his student Goldberg to play for an insomniac Count. Scholarly research has shown that the legend is probably not true, and listening to the piece will affirm that conculsion -- it would be nearly impossible to fall asleep to it. Bach takes a simple aria and constructs a set of thirty variations on this theme, employing all of the keyboard styles of his time and ranging widely in mood before coming back to a restatement of the theme at the end. Glenn Gould, perhaps the most famous of all Bach interpreters, recorded the Goldbergs twice. The first recording, from 1955, is a virtuosic performance that revolutionized Bach keyboard playing, while the second, from 1981, is a far more introspective interpretation by an artist nearing the end of his life. This three-disc collection offers both recordings of the Goldbergs as well as a revealing inteview in which Gould discusses his performances, all for the cost of one full-priced CD.

Similar works: Top 10 Piano
B minor Mass, BWV 232
Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

Bach assembled the B minor Mass near the end of his life from various pieces he had composed earlier in his career, adding new music when necessary. The result is a tour de force that sums up all of the composer's extensive knowledge of sacred choral music. Bach demonstrates his versatility by writing movements for one to four soloists as well as choruses in four, five, six, and even eight parts. Some of the move famous movements are the Crucifixus, which consists of a set of variations over a repeated bass line, and the final Dona nobis pacem, which starts quietly and builds into a grand fugue. John Eliot Gardiner's gripping performance on period instruments is widely hailed as the best interpretation available on record.

Similar works: Top 10 Choral
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I & II, BWV 846-893
Rosalyn Tureck, piano

The Well-Tempered Clavier sums up Bach's mastery of the keyboard in the same way as the B minor Mass sums up his mastery of singing. Each book contains twenty-four preludes and fugues, one in each major and minor key. In the early eighteenth century keyboard instruments would be tuned so that certain keys sounded better or worse than others; the innovation of "well-tempered" tuning allowed the keyboard to sound equally well in all keys, which these collections are intended to demonstrate. They also serve as manuals for keyboard technique, both in the preludes, which usually offer a specific technical challenge, and in the fugues, which test the player's ability to untangle dense contrapuntal lines. Rosalyn Tureck, one of the great Bach performers, handily achieves these tasks and provides a compelling performance. Though he does not have the intensity or attention to detail of Turek, Jeno Jando provides adequate performances (Book I, Book II) at half the price.

Similar works: Top 10 Piano
Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, BWV 1001-1006
Henryk Szeryng, violin

The essence of the Baroque style is counterpoint, two or more melodies sounding simultaneously. This is feasible in a multi-instrument ensemble, much more difficult on the keyboard, and next to impossible on the violin, which is usually only asked to play a single melody. Yet in these six amazing works, Bach asks the violin to sound like up to four different instruments playing at the same time, and does it in a way that sounds completely natural to the instrument. The chaconne from the Partita No. 2 and the fugue from the Sonata No. 3 are particularly noteworthy. Henryk Szeryng makes these extremely difficult pieces sound easy, untangling even the densest contrapuntal lines.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
Cello Suites Nos. 1-6, BWV 1007-1012
Mstislav Rostropovich, cello

As the sonatas and partitas have become central to the violin repertoire, so have these pieces become a rite of passage for any cellist. All six are in the form of multi-movement dance suites, and each conveys a sligtly different mood, from the hopeful first to the dark fifth and triumphant sixth. Mstislav Rostropovich, one of the twentieth century's finest cellists, waited until late in his career to record the Bach suites, and the result is a measured approach that does the masterpieces justice.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music
Saint Matthew Passion, BWV 244
Barbara Bonney, soprano; Anne Sofie von Otter, alto; Michael Chance, countertenor; Howard Crook, tenor; Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor; English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, London Oratory Junior Choir, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

The Saint Matthew Passion, which was probably first performed on Good Friday in 1727, is the grandest composition Bach ever composed. It lasts two and a half hours and calls for two orchestras, two choirs, and numerous soloists, all of which perform together and separately throughout. The libretto combines the text of the Gospel of Saint Matthew with newly composed poetry and hymns to tell the story of Jesus's final day on Earth. Even if one is not at all religious, a good performance -- and the one led by John Eliot Gardiner is top-notch -- makes for an incredibly moving experience.

Similar works: Top 10 Choral
Cantatas, BWV 8, 51, 78, 80, 140, 147
Bach Ensemble, Joshua Rifkin, conductor

If you want a sampling of Bach's church music but don't think you have the patience to sit through the nearly three hours of the Saint Matthew Passion, try some of the cantatas, which don't pack quite as much sacred punch but only last twenty to thirty minutes each. Bach wrote more than three hundred cantatas in his lifetime; this two-disc set features six of the best. Particularly memorable moments include the middle movement of "Wachet auf" (No. 140) and the closing chorale of "Herz und Mund" (No. 147).

Similar works: Top 10 Choral
Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565; Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582
E. Power Biggs, organ

In addition to composing choral works, Bach was responsible for the organ music at the various churches where he was employed. Usually his music would be improvised based on a chorale tune, and the organ works he wrote down retain this improvisatory character. The most famous such piece is the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, with its famous opening call and a fugue subject that is now a popular cell phone ring. The Passacaglia in C minor, a set of variations on a repeated harmonic pattern, comes in a close second. This bargain CD features the legendary E. Power Biggs playing these two masterpieces as well as five others.

Similar works: Top 10 Piano
Orchestral Suites Nos. 1-4, BWV 1066-1069
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Sir Neville Marriner, conductor

These four suites, which Bach gave the title ouverture in a reference to French opera, contain some of Bach's finest orchestral writing. Each is composed of a series of dance movements scored for strings and a small contingent of winds. Sir Neville Marriner leads a delightful performance on modern instruments.

Similar works: Top 10 Orchestral
Violin Concertos Nos. 1-2, BWV 1041-1042; Concerto for Two Violins, BWV 1043
Arthur Grumiaux, Herman Krebbers, violin; Les Solistes Romands, Arpád Gerecz, conductor

Bach was an ardent admirer of the italian composer Antonio Vivaldi, author of more than five hundred concertos, so it was only natural that he should write a few of his own. Bach's concertos closely follow the style of Vivaldi's. The first movement features a recurring passage called a ritornello that is moved about and traded off between soloist and orchestra. The middle movement is slow and expressive, and the finale is usually in a popular dance style. Unlike later concertos, which emphasize the virtuosity of the soloist, Bach's concertos treat the soloist and orchestra equally.

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos
The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080
Emerson String Quartet

This masterwork is the closest Bach ever came to writing an abstract academic exercise. Its fourteen fugues, four canons, and two mirror fugues display all of Bach's knowledge of contrapuntal writing. Bach did not complete the work before his death, and it is even uncertain what instrument it was intended to be played on. Most recordings choose a keyboard instrument, but a string quartet performance better allows the listener to hear the interplay of the different melodic lines. It is easy to make the work sound dry, but the Emerson String Quartet bring the Art of Fugue to life.

Similar works: Top 10 Chamber Music