Every now and again on Gloria I make a comment that a Cantata is "some of my favourite Bach" and listeners have responded "Well, what is your favourite Bach?" Here is an attempt to answer that question.
In this list, as in all such, the pain is of course what I've had to leave out. It helps that this is one of a number of lists on the Gloria webpage and there's no duplication. So Bach's B minor Mass has been give pride of place in my Desert Island Top Ten and Bach will feature in other lists too. I'm considering the artists as much as the works - and I'd recommend any recordings by the names that appear on the lists.
A word first on the vexed subject of "authenticity" It is a much overused term; having "with original instruments" emblazoned on a record cover neither assures any sort of authority or indeed a decent performance! Indeed some of the earlier attempts at mastering say, valve-less 18th century brass, were pretty painful. We can never know what sound Bach heard or had in his mind but you won't find any large modern orchestras in my lists. It seems reasonable to reconstruct the conditions - the instruments and performing practice of the composer's time - as far as we are able. That said I would rather hear the music performed well on the piano than badly on the harpsichord - and there are many pianists who play Bach very well indeed - Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Andras Schiff, Angela Hewitt and Andreas Staier come to mind. Ultimately there is no right and wrong and it is quite likely that today's leading-edge period performances will be considered quaint in 50 years - fashion plays a large part. The crucial thing about the music of the Baroque is that it should dance. It needs clarity, lightness and phrasing - the larger the forces and slower the speeds the more difficult it seems to me to achieve these essentials.
I ask for no other proof of the existence of God than Bach's sublime music, but while it brings many listeners closer to God it is as much his wonderful humanity we celebrate.
1. CANTATAS - BWV 21 ICH HATTE VIEL BEKUMMERNIS - BACH COLLEGIUM JAPAN - MASAAKI SUZUKI - BIS 1031 Since Gloria was expanded from its original one hour format, I have been able to include a Bach Cantata every Sunday, where feasible the complete work, and on the appropriate Sunday for which it was originally composed. I find it hard to believe - though have been assured - that no other radio programme does this. These works are of supreme quality - an astonishing treasury of relatively unknown and rarely performed works by the master. I am currently (Jan 2012) well over half way through the second journey through the c 200 Cantatas which have survived - half as many again are lost! It has been a constant delight for me - and, it seems, for listeners around the world. Five conductors appear regularly - John Eliot Gardiner's "Pilgrimage" of 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, was an amazing achievement, brilliantly captured on his own SDG label: Philippe Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi and Sigiswald Kuijken on Accent and Ton Koopman on Erato (Warner) and latterly on the Dutch Challenge label are all excellent, but the recently completed set on the Swedish label BIS by Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan are the most revelatory. Suzuki directs from the keyboard and has a deep understanding of every aspect of Bach's outlook and music. The recordings are first class in every way. Chorally and instrumentally I cannot find fault, though, as elsewhere, I find the voices in the arias don't always reach the same exalted level (Bach requires a particular vocal style - a general "early music voice" - okay for anything from Monteverdi to Mozart simply won't wash. Any sort of constant vibrato is anathema!). Two Japanese voices stand out - counter-tenor Yoshikazu Mera who featured on the early volumes and tenor Makoto Sakurada. Visitors: tenor Gerd Turk, soprano Carolyn Sampson, bass Peter Kooy and counter-tenor Robin Blaze are uniformly excellent. of the more recent readings I very much like Philippe Pierlot on Mirare and Eric Milnes on Atma. So, I must pick a favourite. I am fascinated by the sound-world from which these masterpieces emerged and delightful echoes of the works of Schutz and Buxtehude and the many lesser figures of 17th century Germany - including many other Bachs - pervade his pre-Leipzig Cantatas. BWV 21 Ich Hatte viel Bekümmernis is from Sebastian's time in Weimar. Like so many it underwent many revisions for subsequent performances but was composed in 1713. It is a substantial work in 11 sections in 2 parts and has the most heart-rending expression of deep suffering and pain leading to trust in God, to hope and finally to Joy and Praise. A typical musical sermon full of the most exquisite music brought superbly to life by Suzuki and his forces.
2. ST. MATTHEW PASSION. GABRIELI CONSORT - PAUL McCREESH - DGARCHIV 474200-2. It is sad that live performances of the St. Matthew Passion are so rare. The St. John (also wonderful of course) is easier - and much less expensive - to put on as a concert. Since performing it at school I have loved the St. Matthew from the churning opening chorus with double choir and orchestra and the boys voices sailing over the rich texture setting the scene for the Passion story driven by the Evangelist with every emotion expressed through arias, operatic recitatives, congregational chorales and dramatic choruses. There were no Opera Houses in Bach's Leipzig (otherwise we would have surely had Bach Operas!) but the Passions are every bit as thrilling as any opera could be, and Mark Padmore's Evangelist has you on the edge of your seat. Again the instrumental and choral work could not be bettered. If you want to experience the Japanese forces (see CANTATAS above) they have made a fine DVD of the Saint. John Passion on TDK - DVBAJPN.
3. MOTETS - FLEMISH RADIO CHOIR - BO HOLTEN. GLOSSA - GCDSA922205. Among the 20 or so LPs which I brought with me from Cambridge to Dublin in 1963 was a recording of a Bach Motet sung by King's College Choir under a young David Willcocks. I believe these works to be the pinnacle of choral expression and have had the good fortune to perform them a number of times. I have 16 recordings in my library. The reading I have chosen is by the Flemish Radio Choir under Bo Holten. This Danish conductor and composer has guest-conducted our National Chamber Choir on many occasions. There are 'one voice to a part' versions which may be more "authentic" but this excellent radio choir of C20 voices is very much at home here with the colour achieved by phrasing and dynamics rather than vibrato.
4. TRIO SONATAS FOR ORGAN - BWV 525-530 - CHRISTOPHER HERRICK - Hyperion - CDA66390. Bach's supremacy in the history of music is nowhere more acknowledged than in the world of the organ. From 1990 to 2002, Christopher Herrick recorded for Hyperion Bach's complete organ works on a series of baroque organs in Germany and Switzerland. The 6 Trio Sonatas are said to have been composed in 1730 as practice works for his son Wilhelm Friedemann, but they are so much more than pedagogic exercises. They are exuberant, tuneful and utterly delightful in every way. The instrument here, the Metzler in the church of Saint Nikolaus in Bremgarten, Switzerland, is beautifully recorded with sweet tones and rich colours, and Herrick's clear articulation brings out the glories of the instrument and Bach's supreme counterpoint. If you'd like to indulge in the thrilling discovery of the master's complete organ works, Herrick's recording is on Hyperion. Other boxes include Kevin Bowyer on Nimbus, Hans Fagius on BIS and Ton Koopman on Warner.
5. BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS, BWV 1046-1051 NAÏVE OP30412. Along with Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Handel's Water Music, these 6 concertos are the most popular works of the Baroque era. In 2010 the Irish Baroque Orchestra performed them all in the National Gallery in Dublin and I realised what a thrill it is to hear them live. Although I much prefer to hear them on original instruments and in an appropriate style, it is sad that Irish audiences hear them so rarely. Understandably, modern orchestras, so different in so many ways, shy away from performing them on inappropriate instruments with much larger forces. The concertos are brimming with character, so varied, so full of surprise and delight that every music-lover should get to know them. Though there are many demanding virtuoso solo parts, especially for harpsichord, brass and violin, every period orchestra has recorded them and many can be warmly recommended - those under the direction of Martin Pearlman, Jean Lamon, some great value Bach boxes (including the equally wonderful 6 Suites) from Trevor Pinnock, John Eliot Gardiner, Reinhard Goebel, Il Giardino Armonico, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with Malcom Proud as the sparkling harpsichordist and of course our friends Bach Collegium Japan, but my top spot goes to Rinaldo Alessandrini. He has been at the forefront of the Italian early music movement for decades. As it was new musical ideas from Italy which as much as anything influenced the young Bach we shouldn't be too surprised to hear wonderful Bach playing coming from this source. The accompanying DVD is a fascinating bonus.
6. SUITES FOR 'CELLO BWV1007-1012 - STEVEN ISSERLIS - HYPERION CDA67541/2 Can there be any more beautiful sound than that of the solo 'cello? It really does come closest to the human voice for sheer intimacy. I had this overwhelming sense of becoming part of the musical experience at William Butt's recital at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in 2011. I often retire under my earphones either to let the beautiful sounds roll over me or attend to Sebastian's astonishing constructions. The story of how Pablo Casals discovered and reconstructed them is fascinating and, like Glenn Gould's moaning Goldbergs, is well worth hearing (though I sometimes think that it is these historical performances which should be called 'Period'). The recording by Steven Isserlis owes much to Casals. He is one of todays great 'cellists and he bided his time before recording these wonderful masterpieces. No, they aren't played on a baroque instrument - his 'cello has a spike. Pieter Wispelway on Channel Classics would be my choice for performances on baroque 'cello.
7. THE MUSICAL OFFERING - BWV1079 - CAMERATA KILKENNY - MAYA MCD1003 Along with the Art of Fugue and Goldberg Variations, the collections of fugues and canons known as the Musical Offering are sometimes considered as rather too intellectual, academic - even mathematical. Sebastian was of course a master of the brilliantly clever manipulation of musical themes and rejoiced in such arcane games, riddles and tricks. My response is to ignore any concerns about his music being too "hard to understand". For most music-lovers music is not there to be understood - it's a matter for the heart rather than the head - though it's great to follow the theme through the various instruments in ways many and various. The music is a delight from start to finish, especially the 6 part Ricercar. The theme in this work has an interesting source - in May 1747 Sebastian visited his second son, Carl Phillip Emanuel (CPE), at the royal court of Frederick the Great in Potsdam, no mean flautist himself and a great patron of the arts. After showing off his skills as an improviser (no wonder jazz musicians hold JSB in such regard) Sebastian was challenged by the King to write a 6 part fugue based on the so-called King's Theme. The Ricercar was the stunning result. My chosen recording is by Camerata Kilkenny under violin virtuoso Maya Homburger and some of Ireland's leading period players, Siobhan Armstrong on harp and harpsichordist Malcolm Proud with German flautist Wilbert Hazelzet.
8. VIOLIN CONCERTOS - ANDREW MANZE and RACHEL PODGER - HMU907155. Bach was for some years responsible for concerts put on by the local Leipzig band, Collegium Musicum, in Zimmerman's coffee house. Considering the paucity of his orchestral works which have survived, just 6 Brandenburgs and 6 Orchestral Suites and hardly more than a handful of concertos, it would seem that its not just the Cantatas which have suffered from the composer's need to "cut and paste" to meet strict deadlines and the lack of care of his sons who inherited his precious scores. Among the Concertos the 3 for violin are wonderful with joyous dancing outer movements and slow middle ones of heart-breaking beauty. Andrew Manze is joined by Rachel Podger, another leading baroque violinist, for the Double Concerto. Other fine recordings include those by Sigiswald Kuijken (in a wonderful box with the Brandenburgs and Suites) Ryo Terakado (with Bach Collegium Japan), Monica Huggett and Catherine Mackintosh.
9. HARPSICHORD CONCERTOS - PIERRE HANTAI - ASTREE - E8837. In May 1999 RTÉ lyric fm took over from RTÉ FM3 Music and, on the old station's final Sunday, on Con Tempo, my programme of contemporary jazz, I played some Bach! Many have suggested that if he had been alive today Bach would be a jazz pianist - and when you hear the opening of this recording of harpsichord you can understand why. After all, his fame was as much as anything due to his astonishing improvising sessions on the organ. This for me is the epitome of the music of Baroque times, where dance reigns and it is impossible not to be moved physically as well as in every other way.
10. GOLDBERG VARIATIONS - URI CAINE - WINTER & WINTER - 910054. The year 2000 was the 250th anniversary of Sebastian Bach's death - 1750. Of all the year's new recordings of his music the one which most intrigued and delighted me was the most exciting of what you might call "Alternative Bach" performances. Winter & Winter is a Munich based record company famous for the highest technical standards, unusual sleeves and imaginative repertoire of contemporary jazz and early music. Uri Caine is not only one of the most versatile and inventive jazz pianists but has given us fascinating new reads on the music of many classical composers, particularly Mahler. His Goldberg variations number 72, and he has composed 40 additional movements in every style imaginable, jazz and popular genres, other classical styles and, intriguingly, from the centuries before Bach as well. Bach's original composition is played beautifully on harpsichord by Caine. This seems to me to be a perfect example of how the astounding spirit of Bach continues to influence and inspire. This recording cannot help but fascinate anyone who knows the original work. The recordings of BWV 988 proper that I turn to most are by Malcolm Proud, Gustav Leonhardt, Pierre Hantai and Richard Egarr. (No, no pianists - it's a totally different instrument - the sound is produced by hitting the strings rather than plucking them - Bach would have written different music for a piano.) TIM THURSTON - NEW YEAR'S DAY 2012
NOTE. Record companies are constantly deleting and re-releasing their issues with different numbers - so if you should wish to order any of the following CDs do check the numbers on the company websites. There are many useful general websites - I find Presto Classical excellent.