Author: Suzanne Bona

Essential Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) had many professional responsibilities and relationships with patrons and other musicians throughout his life that involved writing special music. The prolific composer was himself a virtuoso keyboard player and violinist who excelled in writing instrumental music, and he was a church musician and man of devout Christian faith who composed a variety of eloquent sacred music. As a result, Bach left a significant body of work.

To acquire a complete recording collection of Bach’s compositions would be a dramatic commitment of time and financial resources. Therefore, I’ve jotted down this broad overview of “Essential Bach” music and some suggested recordings. It is NOT intended to be a conclusive, exhaustive or definitive survey of his work. Rather, I propose it as a starting point to explore Bach’s extraordinary legacy and some of the musicians who do justice to it, in my opinion. It’s meant to augment the March 24, 2019 playlist for the Sunday Baroque Bach Birthday Bash, so you can assume everything on the playlist is also worth your consideration. This list is, by definition, highly subjective – these are my opinions and suggestions for where to begin and which performers I admire. It is also an incomplete list, because Bach’s output is too far-reaching and enormous to encapsulate in one simple list. I consider this an open-ended recommendation that will undoubtedly change and expand with new and alternate performances of these and other Bach compositions.

Brandenburg Concertos BWV 1046-1051

Akademie Fur Alte Musik Berlin – Harmonia Mundi 901634/35

Ensemble Caprice – Analekta AN 9996-7

Orchestra Mozart – Deutsche Grammophon 4778908

Mass in b minor BWV 232

Bach Choir of Bethlehem & Bach Festival Orchestra – Dorian 90253

Boston Baroque – Telarc 80517

Collegium Vocale Chorus & Orchestra – Harmonia Mundi 901614/5

Orchestral Suites BWV 1066-1069

Bach Collegium Japan – BIS 1431

Boston Baroque – Telarc 80619

Ensemble Sonnerie – AVIE 2171

Violin and Harpsichord Sonatas BWV 1014-1019

Rachel Barton Pine – violin and Jory Vinikour – harpsichord – Cedille CDR 90000 177

Isabelle Faust – violin and Kristian Bezuidenhout – harpsichord – Harmonia Mundi 902256/57

Michelle Makarski – violin and Keith Jarrett – piano – ECM New Series 2230/31

Violin Concertos BWV 1041-1043

Hilary Hahn – violin, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra – Deutsche Grammophon B0000986

Joshua Bell – violin, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields – Sony 88843

Gottfried von der Goltz – violin, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra – Harmonia Mundi HMC 902145

Suites for Unaccompanied Cello BWV 1007-1012

Yo-Yo Ma – cello – SIX EVOLUTIONS (Sony 190758 54652) & INSPIRED BY BACH (Sony 63203)

Janos Starker – cello – RCA 61436

Matt Haimovitz – cello – Pentatone 5186 555

St Matthew Passion BWV 244

Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr – AAM Records AAM004

Collegium Vocale, Philippe Herreweghe – Harmonia Mundi 951676/78

Concentus Musicus Vienna & Arnold Schoenberg Chorus, Nikolaus Harnoncourt – Teldec 81036

Goldberg Variations BWV 988

Richard Egarr – harpsichord – Harmonia Mundi 907425/46

Peter Serkin – piano – RCA 68188

Simone Dinnerstein – piano – Telarc 80692

Organ Works and Cantatas – BWV various

JS Bach

NOTE: Bach wrote A LOT of cantatas and solo organ music, and there are a few box sets that have them all. They are fine recordings, but they are a splurge and a big commitment. For cantatas I recommend the collections by ensembles such as Bach Collegium Japan with Masaaki Suzuki, Bach-Collegium Stuttgart with Helmut Rilling, or the Bach Pilgrimage series recorded by John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. For complete organ collections, try organists such as Ton Koopman, Marie-Claire Alain, and Simon Preston. However, if you want to tread more modestly into these arenas without breaking the bank try these:

Philippe Herreweghe, La Chapelle Royale & Collegium Vocale – Bach: The Most Beautiful Cantatas – Harmonia Mundi 2908091/95

Masaaki Suzuki, Bach Collegium Japan – Bach Secular Cantatas – BIS 1411

Joshua Rifkin, Bach Ensemble – My Favorite Bach: Six Favorite Cantatas BWV 147, 80, 140, 8, 51, 78 – L’Oiseau Lyre 455706 

John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists – Bach: Cantatas Vol. 1 – City of London – Soli Deo Gloria 101

John Eliot Gardiner, Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists – Bach: Cantatas Vol.12 – Tooting/Winchester – Soli Deo Gloria 171

Ton Koopman – organ – Organ Spectacular: Famous Organ Works by Bach – Teldec 8573-82041-9

Masaaki Suzuki – organ – Bach Organ Works: Volume 1 – BIS 2111 & Bach Organ Works Volume 2 – BIS 2241

Peter Hurford – organ – JS Bach Great Organ Works – Decca 443 485-2

David Goode – organ – JS BACH Organ Music – Signum SIGCD261

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Why Does Music Matter?

I recently attended a piano recital given by an extraordinarily talented friend. His program included a solo piano version of the first part of Igor Stravinsky’s groundbreaking ballet, THE RITE OF SPRING. It was the second time I’d heard my friend play this challenging work, and for the second time I was blown away. The transcription captured the powerful essence of the orchestral work, and the performer — whose technical abilities are otherworldly — conveyed nuances and instrumental timbres that one would think impossible. How can one piano sound like a lone bassoon, a brass section, or a woodwind section? And yet, he did it convincingly, and it was transforming to me in emotional, psychological and even physical ways.

When I attend a particularly moving or impressive musical performance, I find myself with an urgent need to play my flute. It’s like the kid who looks out the window and sees friends playing in the street and feels compelled to drop everything and join them. It’s an itch that must be scratched. So I went home and tackled some music I’m preparing for upcoming performances, and I felt transformed again.

As music lovers, we know and take for granted that music can be such a powerful force, affecting one’s emotions in so many ways. But why? How? What’s that all about?

Speaking recently with some outstanding teenage musicians who’d won a local orchestra’s concerto competition, I asked each of them: Why does music matter? They ranged in age from 13-17, and every one of these wise young people said some version of this: it’s the best way to connect with emotions and express feelings. One told me it’s better than words and that, even though he aspires to a career as a surgeon, he will never give up his music. Another told me that music matters — all genres of music — because it affects people’s lives and makes people happy. One young musician said that after a long day, music provides a means to shed stress and go to “another world.” She passionately explained that music is a “universal language that connects everyone.” They spoke as performers and as listeners, and they referred to not just classical, but jazz, pop, and other genres. The common thread was MUSIC.

So now it’s your turn: Why does music matter to YOU? Why does music matter in general? What unique experience do you get from music, whether it’s from listening or playing music yourself?

Earworms and Air Conducting

Have you ever heard the word “earworm”? It’s a melody that gets into your brain and won’t go away — a tune you keep humming over and over until you eventually find a way to dislodge it, or it mercifully evaporates on its own. “Air conducting” is the reflexive waving of arms that happens when you hear music that is so compelling it engages your invisible conductor’s baton to keep time.

I was thinking about earworms and air conducting recently when I heard the Fanfare from THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA (most familiar from the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) by Richard Strauss. This particular music has the power to generate an earworm, inspire air conducting AND cause spontaneous air-timpani-playing, too! (At least it did for me!) It brought to mind other music with especially strong magnetic powers: George Frideric Handel’s HALLELUJAH CHORUS from his oratorio MESSIAH, for example. Handel had a particular gift for writing catchy tunes that draw listeners in and make us want to sing along. I have been on road trips during which everyone in the car joined in to sing along with that one. If you have ever attended a performance of MESSIAH, you probably experienced the audience spontaneously standing up when the HALLELUJAH CHORUS began. That’s because, according to legend, when King George attended a performance of MESSIAH he stood when the HALLELUJAH CHORUS began. Since protocol dictated that when the King stands, everyone stands, everyone in attendance rose to their feet. Was Handel’s music so compelling to the King, so mesmerizing, so dramatic, that he couldn’t help himself? Or did the King just need a stretch break during the long oratorio, which lasts around 2 1/2 hours? We’ll probably never know for sure, but either scenario is plausible.

The main theme of Franz Schubert’s UNFINISHED SYMPHONY is another composition that tends to lodge in my brain. (Forever edified, for better or worse, by the words superimposed to help generations of people remember it: “This is the Symphony that Schubert wrote and never finished …”) It can feel fun and cathartic to sing along or air conduct with a snippet from a monumental piece of music! The downside of earworms, though, is that they are not always generated by great works like Handel’s HALLELUJAH CHORUS or Schubert’s UNFINISHED SYMPHONY — sometimes they are commercial jingles or other insipid tunes.

What music typically gives you an earworm? Are there particular compositions that draw you in, or is there a “type” of music that does it? Do you have any tried and true methods of dislodging earworms? Do you ever find yourself air conducting and, if so, what kinds of music creates that impulse? Have you ever been “caught” playing air timpani (or guitar, or violin) when you didn’t realize you were doing it? Please share your experiences!

Sources of Inspiration

One of the many enjoyable aspects of my work is getting to interview interesting people. Often these are musicians, and I love asking them how they got interested in music and what inspired them. Recently, a violinist I interviewed told me he saw Itzhak Perlman on Sesame Street, and all these years later he still vividly remembers the excitement and wonder he felt when he saw the legendary musician on the children’s show. I recall that, as a very little girl, I listened over and over (and over) to my parents’ LP of pianist Garrick Ohlsson playing Chopin’s two piano concertos. The American pianist had just won the Chopin International Piano Competition, and I was completely consumed with that music. It sparked something in me, and helped shape the path of my life and career. Decades later, I had the chance to meet Garrick Ohlsson in the green room after an orchestra concert for which he was the soloist, and those memories of listening to his Chopin LP came flooding back to me. It reminded me of how deeply and profoundly inspiring great music can be, and of the many and varied sources of inspiration there are.

What inspired you to love classical music? Whether it was Sesame Street, a family LP, cartoons, or a chance encounter with a radio program as you scanned the dial … how did you start and cultivate your love of music? Please share your story!

audio version of this blog

Why not?

I recently attended a memorial service for the mother of a friend and musical colleague. She was a woman in her late 80s — an accomplished and beloved mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, aunt, friend, neighbor, and philanthropist. For about an hour, people shared stories of her sense of fun, generosity, hospitality, directness and kindness. I knew this lovely lady primarily from her consistent spot in the front row at my performances with her son. She and her late husband were enthusiastic fixtures at every concert, no matter the weather or their schedules, and even as their health declined in their later years.

One speaker at the memorial summed up her life in a way that truly resonates with me. She said that she would often seek her grandmother’s advice about how to proceed with something in her life. “Grandma, should I [fill in the blank]?” And Grandma’s reply was usually an enthusiastic, “Why not??”

So as this new year begins, I hope you will consider this wise and beloved woman’s advice. If you’re thinking about learning something new (a musical instrument, a language, a job skill), trying something different (a food, exercise routine, home, concert), or pursuing some dream on your wish list … ask yourself, “WHY NOT??” Take a first step, and see how it goes!

Happy New Year!

Audio version of this blog post

Holiday Traditions

Over the past few weeks I have been busy  … how about you? My days have been joyfully filled with baking, entertaining, playing holiday concerts, and listening to special music to program on Sunday Baroque for the holidays.

Many people have favorite family treats that are synonymous with the holidays; maybe you’re like me and you both serve them at your holiday parties, as well as give them to friends as gifts. Perhaps your holiday traditions include decorating your home and yard, listening to certain beloved holiday music, or watching favorite films.

Although the whole idea of traditions is to pass down important or endearing activities, items or foods — to replicate them generation after generation , it’s inevitable that traditions morph as the years go by. Our holidays have been delightfully energized and broadened by the addition to our family of a 16-year-old exchange student! We are loving the opportunity to help her enjoy some of her beloved holiday traditions while living so far from home, as well as to introduce her to our family traditions. (Let’s just say she is quite pleased by all the baked goods being produced in my kitchen!) We look forward to seeing this time of year anew, as we see it through her eyes.

How are you spending these weeks? What are some of your holiday traditions? How have you blended your traditions with other, newer traditions? What music are you listening to? What special, meaningful things do you look forward to at this time of year? Let’s start a new tradition of sharing what is most important and satisfying to each of us at holiday time.

Music is a Gift

Just before the winter holidays each year, I hand-pick some of my favorite recent recordings and compile them in a list for you to consider giving as gifts to the music lovers on your list. The Sunday Baroque Holiday Gift List has become an annual tradition stretching back many years!

I seek out a variety of recordings by world-class performers, including a few familiar baroque compositions, as well as some less well-known selections. This year’s “greatest hits” list includes cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s new recording of all six of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, as well as a snazzy recording of Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Concertos by violinist Rachel Podger with Brecon Baroque. In the fresh and new column, there is Chatham Baroque’s recording of music written in the so-called “fantastic style” by composers such as Antonio Bertali and Johann Hermann Schein, as well as Stile Antico’s gorgeous performances of sacred music by 16th century Spaniard Tomas Luis de Victoria, and Ronn McFarlane’s lilting performances of Celtic lute solos.

Each of these recordings is a gem because it combines technical virtuosity, imaginative repertory, and well-informed artistry. It is thrilling that this is Yo-Yo Ma’s third recording of Bach’s iconic cello suites, spanning more than four decades of his career. Just as Bach’s music has endured the centuries, staying relevant and becoming more revered, the cellist still has so much to say musically, too, and he says it so beautifully.

Every week through the end of the year you will hear some selections from this year’s Sunday Baroque Holiday Gift list on the Sunday Baroque broadcast. It’s a risk-free way to audition the CDs or, if you’re not planning to give them as gifts, an opportunity to kick back on the weekend and savor some excellent recent recordings. Give yourself the gift of great music, and may it enhance your enjoyment of the holiday season.

Thanks for listening!

2018 Holiday Gift List


2018 Holiday Gift List

Sunday Baroque gift list


Every year at this time, I create a list of suggestions for holiday gift giving. Starting November 25th and continuing through December, you can audition some of my recommendations from the annual Sunday Baroque Holiday Gift List. All of us at Sunday Baroque wish you and yours a happy, healthy, and safe holiday season filled with laughter, peace and an abundance of good music!


Johann Sebastian Bach – 6 Unaccompanied Cello Suites
Yo-Yo Ma – cello
Sony 54652

Johann Sebastian Bach’s 6 unaccompanied cello suites are the “holy grail” for all serious cellists. They are technically demanding and musically complex and intricate. This is cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s third recording of Bach’s cello suites; all three recordings are masterful, and this fresh approach is a welcome and highly appealing addition to your collection.

Turlough O’Carolan, Traditional Irish, Traditional Scottish – lute solos
Ronn McFarlane – lute
Sono Luminus DSL-92225

Ronn McFarlane is one of the world’s foremost lute players. He plays his own thoughtful arrangements of these lovely Irish and Scottish solos. It’s charming, lilting and intimate.

Vivaldi Le Quattro StagioniVIVALDI - LE QUATTRO STAGIONI
Vivaldi Concertos
Rachel Podger – violin, Brecon Baroque
Channel Classics 40318

As a baroque music expert, violinist Rachel Podger approaches Antonio Vivaldi’s Concertos with confidence and flair. She collaborates with her colleagues in Brecon Baroque to perform Vivaldi’s beloved Four Seasons concertos, as well as three other Vivaldi concertos: Concerto RV270 IL RIPOSO PER IL S.S. NATALE, Concerto RV271 L’AMOROSO and Concerto RV208 IL GROSSO MOGUL.

Sonatas by Janitsch
Tempesta di Mare
Chandos CHAN 0820

Johann Gottlieb Janitsch was one of the top musicians who worked for King Frederick of Prussia. Although much of the German composer’s music was lost during World War II, some of his music survived and was preserved thanks to a woman named Sara Levy, a harpsichordist who had an extensive collection of baroque era music. Tempesta di Mare Chamber Players plays Janitsch’s music from Sara Levy’s archives.

Music by Jean-Féry Rebel and Georg Philipp Telemann
Le Concert des Nations, Jordi Savall
Alia Vox 9929

Dance is a significant part of the baroque repertory, and French baroque dance music is especially charming and cheery. This November 2018 release features happy and upbeat music that is just a bit off the beaten track.

Christina Day Martinson – violin, Boston Baroque, Martin Pearlman

Christina Day Martinson is concertmaster of the period instrument group BOSTON BAROQUE, which is led by Martin Pearlman. Their recent recording of Heinrich Biber’s 15 Sonatas on the Mysteries of the Rosary was a “spiritual journey” for Christina Day Martinson that yielded a satisfying listening experience.

Sonatas & Chamber Music by Antonio Bertali, Heinrich Biber, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, and Johann Hermann Schein
Chatham Baroque
NO HOLDS BARRED is Chatham Baroque’s recording of music written in the so-called “fantastic style” which was an improvisational and virtuosic style of music-making. These are spirited performances of interesting yet less well-known baroque music.

Sacred music by Tomas Luis de Victoria
Stile Antico
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902272

The British vocal group Stile Antico sings music by 16th century Spanish composer TOMAS LUIS DE VICTORIA – his music for the Christian observance of holy week. Beautiful, ethereal and uplifting.

Concertos by Bach + Glass
Simone Dinnerstein – piano, A Far Cry
Orange Mountain Music 0127

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein has a special affinity for Johann Sebastian Bach’s music – hearing the genius in the way the composer deviates from the expected, and is expressive and soulful in unusual ways. This recording juxtaposes Bach’s Keyboard Concerto #7 with a concerto by contemporary composer Philip Glass written especially for her. The Boston area group A FAR CRY is also featured.

Sonatas for violin and harpsichord
Rachel Barton Pine – violin, Jory Vinikour – harpsichord
Cedille CDR 90000 177

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine and harpsichordist Jory Vinikour enjoy international careers as soloists, chamber musicians, and ensemble collaborators. They recently teamed up to record Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonatas for violin and Harpsichord, and the warmth of their personal friendship shines through in these fine performances.


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Thank you! Danke! Gracias! Köszönöm!

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays! It’s not the food (since I’m not especially fond of turkey), it’s the overall spirit of the occasion. I love that we set aside time to get together with others and acknowledge the good things in our lives.

My parents hosted the family Thanksgiving gatherings when I was growing up, and those meals typically included an extended guest list of friends, too. The conversations were interesting and lively, and they provided a great example of hospitality in my formative years.  I have continued that tradition of an extended guest list, and it may be my favorite part of the holiday. Last year our Thanksgiving table included family from all over the United States, as well as local friends and colleagues, and visitors from India. It was especially fun to treat the Indian guests to their first- ever Thanksgiving meal — cranberry sauce! pumpkin pie!

This year, we will have another international group gathered around our table to share a meal and acknowledge our gratitude. The guest list includes a new colleague from Mexico, a dear friend who grew up in the UK, and our beloved 16 year old exchange student who was born in Hungary, but whose family now lives in Vienna. We look forward to the rich and interesting conversation that we know will ensue, and the connections that will be made across cultures and generations.

I hope you have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, and I hope you have the opportunity to be with others to share that feeling of community and gratitude. Thank YOU for loving music, and for listening!


Since it’s Halloween, it seemed the perfect time to share this. I just returned from a visit to Transylvania. Yes, THAT Transylvania. Cluj, Romania, to be more precise. My late mother was born there, which means I have some Transylvanian blood in my veins.

Cluj is a lovely city (my Hungarian family uses the Hungarian name: Kolozsvár) — charming and easy to walk around. They have a lot of fun with the Dracula association, just as my family always did, but I did not encounter any vampires (family or otherwise). Instead, I met some warm and gracious locals who are rightfully proud of their city and their culture. I also saw beautiful architecture, ate delicious regional foods, toured the Hungarian Theatre, and learned more about the history of this faraway, storied place where my relatives once lived. I even drank … wine!

Happy Halloween!