One of our fellow-Twitterers asked about what's a good set of pieces to start listening to Bach's music. We thought about it, and decided that there was no earthly way of answering the question in a 140-character tweet.

Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann © Public domain
Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann
© Public domain

Actually, Bach wrote so much in so many styles that the answer very much depends on where you're coming from. In particular, if you're a devout Christian, you start at a very different place than if you're not. To start with, here's a selection of my more secular favourites:

Top of my list, albeit not for the faint-hearted, is the Violin Partita no. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, with its awesome last movement Chaconne. Although there's just the one instrument playing, it demands complete concentration, and you feel at the end as if you've just come out of an emotional wringer, but in a deeply satisfying way. Here's a Youtube video of the legendary Jascha Heifetz performing the work.

The Chaconne has been arranged for just about every instrument on the planet, with excellent versions for guitar (by Julian Bream and several others) and piano (by Ferrucio Busoni).

If you're in a darker, more contemplative mood, start with the Suite no. 1 for solo cello in G Major, BWV 1007, seen here played by Job te Haar. If you're not up to 30 minutes of solo violin or cello, however, much of the solo piano music is a bit easier to get to grips with. This is particularly so when played by the late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who played a large quantity of it in a quite inimitable style, bringing the music to life with masses of vitality and immediacy. Gould made no concessions to period-instrument purists, and he's so off-centre that he offends many real baroque afficionados, but it works for me and I love every minute of his playing. Start with the French Suites, BWV 812-817, or the F sharp minor Toccata, BWV 910 from Gould's Toccatas and Inventions album.

Gould is also one of several good interpreters of the Piano Concertos - I'm very fond of Piano Concerto no. 1, BWV 1052. Here's a Youtube clip of Gould and Bernstein:

If you prefer more baroque, upbeat music of the sort that you imagine in a 17th century court event, the Double violin concerto, BWV 1043 is lovely. The six Brandenburg concertos are very well loved: personally, I find them a bit patchy but no. 3 is a favourite: upbeat and textured. Watch Hofkapelle München perform numbers 2 to 5 on Bachtrack At Home.

If you start from a Christian religious background (I don't, but I'm still very affected by the music), there's a truly enormous canon of work. Of the large scale choral works, I've seen both the B Minor Mass and one of the Christmas Oratorios and both were fabulous; for Easter time, the St John and St Matthew Passions are very popular. On a smaller scale, Bach wrote hundreds of cantatas and other pieces of vocal music: a good one to start is BWV147 with its famous chorale Jesu, joy of man's desiring (also check out the Dinu Lipatti recording of the Hess piano arrangement of this). I've particularly enjoyed the album The Voice of Bach by counter-tenor Daniel Taylor which Sony donated to our Christmas quiz last year. Here's a clip of Jesu Joy:

You can also listen to one of the many collections of organ music: the piece you will most probably recognize is the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 with its smack-you-between-the-eyes opening, but there is much other music of rather more delicate beauty, such as Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645, made famous in the UK (I'm ashamed to say) by TV advertising, and played beautifully here:

Finally, I have to mention the great keyboard collections The Well Tempered Clavier and The Art of Fugue (in both cases, you can find recordings on piano, organ or the original harpsichord/clavichord). You only really want to go for these if you are prepared for a musical workout: they are pieces of huge complexity to appeal to a musical ear that loves searching for pattern and structure within multiple beautiful melodies played at the same time. If this is the musical experience you're after, I'd venture to say that no composer before or since has come close.

Enjoy the journey!

Article updated by Danny Riley, 31/07/17.