Published March 25. 2014 10:00AM Updated March 25. 2014 10:54AM
In "Just Listen," The Day's music writers share their playlists of favorite recordings and invite you to share your comments and your playlists. Each blog includes a Spotify playlist of the music in play. You can stream the music, then add your comments in this blog. Spotify is a free music service that you can load onto your computer or wireless device.
Who was the greatest musician who ever lived? A dumb question, for sure, but if you just say "Bach," no one will think you're stupid.
Almost everything we know and think about music was codified, in a way, by Bach. You know dozens of Bach tunes, whether you realize it or not, because they are imprinted in the cultural DNA or Western society. Bach was prolific beyond imagination, with nearly 1,100 works extant, including nearly 300 big choral works.
In the words of the fine analyst Jan Swafford: "Many music lovers are apt to get Bach mixed up with God."
So to celebrate the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, born either March 21 or 31, 1685 (depending on old or new calendars), I offer some of my favorite Bach. I say "favorite" because to choose the greatest Bach would be a life's work – and a fool's errand.
I gravitate toward Bach's incomparable keyboard works, and I open with a lovely, lyrical performance one of the most famous moments in music: the prelude to Bach's C Major opening to The Well-Tempered Clavier. Since this is the start of Bach's keyboard journey through all of the keys, it sounds like the sunrise of creation itself …
We don't get to hear much Bach in our usual concert venues (though the church organist couldn't live without it) because Bach wrote basically nothing for a symphony orchestra or most standard chamber music ensembles. But some of his works written for small ensembles fewer than 10 musicians have been inflated for larger ensembles. Another famous favorite … the concerto for two violins in two violins (with soloist Gidon Kramer double tracking):
I once froze in my tracks in the New York subway, paralyzed by the beauty of a Bach partita … being played on an accordion! As proof of the miracle of Bach's music, that it is so absolute that it can be transcribed to almost any instrument, here is mandolinist Chris Thile performing his version of the fugue from Bach's Sonata for Solo Violin No. 1:
A tiny favorite of mine is this wonderfully drifting slow movement from one of the few Bach compositions that fit into the chamber music repertoire, his Violin Sonata No, 5 in F Minor, performed in an amazingly resonant and atmospheric recording by Gabriela Demeterová on violin, Giedré Lukšaité-Mrázková on harpsichord:
No Bach celebration could leave out Glen Gould, Bach's greatest advocate of the past 50 years. Here we have one of Gould's showiest showpieces, his breakneck finale to Bach's Italian Concerto, with his left and right hands racing through contrapuntal scales:
Now a change of pace, diving into Bach's deepest waters: his oratorios and cantatas. I offer a splendid track from a project by Hilary Hahn, our brilliant American violinist, in which she selected arias that merged violin and voice. Here Hahn performs with the great bass-baritone Matthias Goerne, in an aria from the St. Matthew Passion:
I end with two works which, in my fool's errand, are his greatest. One is huge, so I offer just one section. One is small – Mahler famously said a symphony should contain the whole world. Bach did that with one violin.
First, Bach plumbs the depths of the human condition in the Crucifixus from his monumental B Minor Mass. Once described as the sound of souls drowning in sorrow, to me it is achingly resigned as it descends to the darkness of the grave.
And I end with my personal "greatest Bach:" the chaconne movement from his Partita in d Minor for Solo Violin, as performed by Hilary Hahn – when she was 16! Every time I hear this music, I am transfixed. I would be driving under the influence if I popped it into the player on the highway.
So much Bach, some would argue he gave us everything.