Don't worry about investing $1700 in one conductor. Helmut Rilling is well-seasoned. Not a proponent of the period instrument movement, he adopts a spirited modern approach toward Bach. His orchestral pace is swift, his performers creative. The performances range from the extraordinary to the acceptable with very few clunkers. Bach's resplendent choral works--the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, the Christmas Oratorio, and the Mass in B Minor--shake the room with baroque jubilance and anguish. Rilling's St. John Passion contains the alternate versions for five sections. He infuses the eight volumes of the Bach chorale books with a refreshing humanism, unclogged by the usual solemnity.
Hanssler has organized this collection imaginatively. For example, rather than group the solo organ works by one category, it does so by theme (e.g., New Ideas in Weimar; Influences of Cantata, Concerto, and Chamber). The Edition Bachakademie also includes unauthenticated and spurious works, perhaps one reason why it is nineteen CDs longer than the competition, Teldec's Bach 2000.
There are other treasures: the careful counterpoint of the motets, Robert Levin's sagely explained instrumental choices for the Well Tempered Clavier, the aggressive and callow Harpsichord Music of the Young J.S. Bach.
Rilling's performances of Bach's more than 200 cantatas make this set worth owning. Some are decades old, but in good shape, such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's tender and forceful "Ich Habe Genug." Although contralto Helen Watts is the victim of shoddy miking in BWV 83 and 86, she recovers in the duets of BWV 134.
The set comes with a Bach coffee table book and a 255-page booklet with two helpful indexes. Buy this set so that when asked if you own "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern," you can reply "Which one? BWV 739 or BWV 764?"