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Monday, March 21, 2011

Happy Birthday, Johann Sebastian Bach!

Johann Sebastian Bach
Today is the 326th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, the greatest composer of the baroque era, and one of the most influential musicians to ever walk the Earth.

Bach composed complex, contrapuntal music, firmly rooted in music theory and tradition, anchored by a rock-solid belief in God. His vast catalogue of compositions includes cantatas, concertos, keyboard compositions and a veritable textbook of organ music. Along the way, he invented the cello suite and wrote the Passions of St. Matthew and St. John, among the most powerful religious music ever written.

And four of his kids grew up to be famous composers.

For some listeners, Bach's mathematically perfect works suggest a divine, ideal form, with carefully constructed spires of counterpoint rising toward Heaven. For others, the precision of Bach can be used to define the triumph of man's reason over superstition. So in other words, the genius of Bach can be used to defend almost any argument.

Luckily, Bach lovers have many options to explore the master's music on disc and mp3, from esoteric high-end performances to giant budget box sets that offer a complete overview of Bach's genius.

Here's a quick look at the best Bach boxes.

Various Artists: Complete Bach Edition (Brilliant Classics, 155 CDs)
This authoritative compilation features the entire Bach ouevre, recorded in high digital quality. These performances do not feature the flashy, big label stars, but the musicians and singers range from adequate to exceptional. Mostly recorded in Holland and Belgium, this massive set will provide two solid weeks of musical education, and that's just at one sitting. Whew.

Ton Koopman, Organ: Complete Organ Works (Warner Brothers Classics/Das Alte Werk 16 CDs)
An exhaustive survey of Bach's works for organ. This reissue features the Dutch organist Ton Koopman, an organist and conductor who also recorded the complete cantatas for Erato. Koopman plays on eight different organs in Holland and Germany. Two of them (the organs in Freiburg and Hamburg) were played on by Bach himself. Other organists that are worth checking out include Simon Preston and the legendary, blind Helmut Walcha.

Concentius Musicus Wein cond. Nikolaus Harnoncourt;
Leonhardt Consort cond. Gustav Leonhardt:
Complete Cantatas (Warner Brothers Classics, 60 CDs)
Nikolaus Harnoncourt is a former cellist who rose to fame by conducting Bach. (Incidentally, he's also a count, and a descendant of Holy Roman Emperors.) He's also a gifted conductor who built an international recording career on the back of these recordings. This was the first complete cycle of Bach cantatas ever recorded and is a milestone in the catalogue of Bach works.

English Baroque Soloists cond. John Eliot Gardiner: Sacred Choral Works and Cantatas (DG Archiv, 22 CDs)
This one's been mentioned before. Recently reissued, this set combines all of Gardiner's stellar recordings of the major Bach choral works: the two Passions, the Mass in B Minor and the oratorios, alongside the first few discs in his cycle of Bach cantatas before the conductor left DG and started his own record label. Crisply played performances in sterling sound.

Glenn Gould, Piano: Glenn Gould Plays Bach (Sony, 6 CDs)
When the 22-year old Glenn Gould recorded his 1955 run-through of the Goldberg Variations, he unknowingly made the first runaway classical hit of the LP era. He also put the pieces on the map as essential repertory for pianists.

Historical performance: Glenn Gould plays Bach's Third Partita for Piano.
Historical importance aside, the idiosyncratic (OK, downright weird) Canadian pianist had a unique interpretative touch. There are other exceptional Goldbergs in the catalogue, but none are as famous. This newly issued set includes Gould playing the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Inventions, Toccatas and Partitas. Not complete, but essential.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.