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

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

9 comments on “Essential Bach

  1. Dr. Richard D'Ippolito on

    Sorry — I hate Bach on a piano. It is anachronistic and blurs the counterpoint. Most pianists are unfamiliar with baroque style and performance practice to pull it off. There are too many good and new harpsichordists who can do it correctly and need the exposure. Please remove all pianos from your show. (I never seem to hear you feature Scarlatti or Couperin on a harpsichord, either.) It keeps me from supporting my local station.

    • Suzanne Bona on

      Thank you for weighing in with your opinion. Music is subjective, and I respect that you would make different choices. I hope we’ll continue to provide appealing music to keep you listening so regularly, regardless! Thanks!

  2. Robb Steinbeck on

    Related to the previous post that requests “remove all pianos from your show”..

    Please DO continue to include works for piano.

    My opinion is that the request is ludicrous.
    In fact, I’m hoping it is a hoax, and that some of the more colorful replies will be shared in one week, on April Fool’s day,

    Keep up the great work on the Sunday Baroque program!

    • Suzanne Bona on

      Thanks for your comments, too! As I said, music is subjective, as your two opposing opinions illustrate! Never fear: the range of period AND modern instruments, including pianos, will continue to be included on Sunday Baroque. 🙂

  3. Jim Young on

    All great “essential” works and some new recordings to explore. Thank you! Could you add one more canonical masterpiece? The Weihnachtsoratorium? With the “Catholic” B-minor Mass and Matthew Passion, these are Bach’s choral Trinity. Christ’s Nativity, Crucifixion, and the Latin ordinary expressed through his singular genius.

    Messiah prevails (justifiably) in the English-speaking world, but Bach’s oratorio is so famous and ubiquitous at Christmastime throughout the German-speaking world. Can you share your recommended / favorite recordings of the Christmas Oratorio?

  4. Jim Young on

    All great “essential” works and some new recordings to explore. Thank you! Could you add one more canonical masterpiece? The Weihnachtsoratorium? With the “Catholic” B-minor Mass and Matthew Passion, these are Bach’s choral Trinity. Christ’s Nativity, Crucifixion, and the Latin ordinary expressed through Bach’s singular genius.

    Messiah prevails (justifiably) in the English-speaking world, but Bach’s oratorio is so famous and ubiquitous at Christmastime throughout the German-speaking world. Can you share your recommended / favorite recordings of the Christmas Oratorio?

  5. Suzanne Bona on

    Try these: Collegium Vocale (Erato 96334), Bach Choir of Bethlehem (Dorian 93183) and Concentus Musicus Vienna (Teldec 77610) – Suzanne 🙂

Comments are closed.