Month: March 2019

Ahhh, Bach!

Today’s program is the annual Sunday Baroque Bach Birthday Bash! As host of Sunday Baroque for 31 1/2 years, I have thrown this musical celebration for Johann Sebastian Bach since the early days of the program. It is both daunting and delightful to craft a representative narrative of Bach’s output within the confines of a four-hour radio program, and I hope you enjoy this year’s edition.

My appreciation for the composer, his genius and his legacy have continued to grow over time. When I interview musicians, I often ask them about their relationship with and attitude towards Bach. His name comes up with musicians of all genres — Bach is THAT important. Years ago, I read a Details magazine interview with Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. The interviewer asked, “Do you mind if I ask what you’re listening to there at home? It sounds like Bach . . .” And Watts replied, “It is.”

It’s not only musicians who appreciate Bach’s genius. Retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter considers Bach to be his favorite composer. And the late humanitarian Albert Schweitzer was also an organist whose reverence for Bach inspired him to write a comprehensive 2-volume book about the composer. Bach’s music, and Bach’s reputation as a genius, are well represented in popular culture, too. For example, the title of this post … Ahhh, Bach! … is a reference to an episode of the M*A*S*H television series. In it, the character Radar O’Reilly wants to impress a potential love interest with “highbrow” interests, and is coached to utter, “Ahhh, Bach …” with a serene and knowing expression. (p.s. — the tactic backfires spectacularly when she replies, “Ahh, Bach? What does that mean?” and he has no followup except to keep repeating the empty phrase, “Ahh, Bach.”)

As a flutist, I long considered Bach’s music to be somewhat intimidating. In recent years I’ve tried to overcome my ambivalence and play his music more regularly with a variety of collaborators. What we’ve observed is that Bach’s music seems to have a limitless quality for exploration and interpretation. Every time we play it, new expressive possibilities and nuances reveal themselves. I suppose that’s why cellist Yo-Yo Ma recently released his third recording of Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites — even a masterful musician like Ma continues to find more and different ways to approach Bach.

What about you? Whether you’re a musician yourself, or a music-loving non-musician (knowledgeable or novice), what is it about Bach’s music that moves you? How did you find your way to listening to Bach? What are your favorite compositions by the composer, and why do you love those pieces so much? Please help celebrate the Bach Birthday Bash by sharing YOUR impressions of his music!

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?