Bach for beginners: the recordings to help you discover Bach
Pianist George Lepauw introduces us to his essential Bach listening
Cello Suite No. 1: Prelude
Recommended recording: Pablo Casals (cello)
This is a very old scratchy recording, but if you lean in to listen, you will discover the inimitable Pablo Casals, one of the greatest interpreters of Bach. He remains unrivalled, thanks to his intensity and the honesty with which he plays Bach’s music.
Goldberg Variations: Aria
Recommended recording: Glenn Gould (piano)
It’s hard to put together a list of Bach’s greatest works without including the Aria from his Goldberg Variations. It’s equally hard to not include Glenn Gould. He brings so much of Bach’s music into focus and allows us to consider it deeply. Simone Dinnerstein’s more recent version is equally brilliant, but Gould remains an irreplaceable artist.
Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565
Recommended recording: Jacques Loussier Trio
Bach’s music has the advantage of being easy to adapt, from basic transcriptions for other instrumental combinations to non-classical versions.
Jacques Loussier was a tremendous jazz pianist whose combined love of classical music and jazz helped bring these two genres together in unusual and exciting ways.
Prelude No. 1 from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1
Recommended recording: George Lepauw (piano)
There is no better entry to Bach than the first piece in his Well-Tempered Clavier. Close your eyes and let this music seep in: it’s short, sweet, and will centre your mind. Make listening to this piece a habit!
‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’ from St Matthew Passion
Recommended recording: Eula Beal (contralto), Yehudi Menuhin (violin)
This is one of the most gorgeous and profound pieces Bach wrote, heard here in a unique duo between Yehudi Menuhin’s sensitive violin and Eula Beal’s moving contralto voice.
Mass in B minor: Kyrie
Recommended recording: Munich Bach Orchestra & Choir/Karl Richter
Bach’s Mass in B minor is extremely powerful: you can get lost in its intense moving lines and harmonies. It’s also a work that brings together Bach’s loves of organ, choir and large instrumental forces. It’s definitely worth diving into, especially if you love drama!
Violin Partita No. 3 in E: Prelude
Recommended recording: Hilary Hahn (violin)
This piece always provides a boost of energy. Bach’s works for solo violin are copious and brilliant, and Hilary Hahn is a superb virtuoso performer.
Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D: Air
Recommended recording: Staatskapelle Dresden/Ferdinand Leitner
Commonly known as ‘Air on the G String’, this movement from one of Bach’s orchestral suites is a calming and reflecting listen.
Keyboard Concerto in D minor BWV 1052: I. Allegro
Recommended recording: Jean Rondeau (harpsichord)
A burst of energy here from this virtuosic work, performed with sharpness and warmth in equal parts.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 2: III. Allegro assai
Recommended recording: Maurice André (trumpet)
One of the greatest tunes from the trumpet, Bach’s interest in exploring instrumental timbre is most apparent in this piece.
Double Violin Concerto in D minor
Recommended recording: Yehudi Menuhin & David Oistrakh (violin)
This piece is full of drama and sweetness, performed here by two musical giants of the last century.
St John Passion: Unser Herrscher
Recommended recording: Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
This isn’t exactly ‘easy listening’, but its intensity is transfixing.
Keyboard Concerto No. 5 in F minor: II. Largo
Recommended recording: Maria João Pires/Riccardo Chailly
To calm things down, this is one of Bach’s finest slow movements: every note sounds like a rare pearl. We all know this tune, but it never gets old.
George Lepauw’s recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is available now on Orchid Classics.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.