If you didn’t know, yesterday was J. S. Bach’s birthday. I didn’t grow up listening to classical music–my clearest childhood recollections are of Tennessee Ernie Ford and Mahalia Jackson. Later on I became a fan of Elton John and of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. My sole impression of Bach was gained from his Toccata and Fuge in D Minor, a complex and heavy work that was (wrongly) played before the movie Thief in the Night to create a sinister atmosphere.
Now Bach is my favorite composer. Much of the credit for that change goes to Christopher Parkening, whose recordings of Bach’s music helped me to perceive its devotion, beauty, and joy. I can still remember listening astonished for the first time to Parkening’s rendition of Bach’s Praeludium, wondering how only one man with only ten fingers could play those notes so beautifully.
The last thing I want to do is to give you an assignment or to tell you that you “ought to listen to Bach.” Still, if you knew what to listen to, you might discover a beauty and joy that you have never elsewhere encountered. So let me suggest a couple of pathways into Bach’s music.
The first is the one that opened Bach for me, namely, Parkening’s guitar transcriptions. I’d specifically recommend three albums.
Parkening Plays Bach is a solo album that features a few other composers as well.
A Bach Celebration has Parkening playing with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
Simple Gifts is an album of sacred music, including some Bach.
If you prefer a bolder sound, the Empire Brass has recorded A Bach Festival with Douglas Major playing the organ. If you’ve got a good stereo, you’re going to want to turn it all the way up to 11. The “Concerto and Alleluia” will shiver your timbers.
Would you rather hear something orchestral? Then listen to one of Bach’s job applications, the Brandenburg Concerti. I’ve linked to a performance by the Consortium Musicum, but feel free to buy a different album. It’s hard to find a bad version of the Brandenburgs.