Buy this set and you will be knee-deep in Bach – literally. The carton containing the CDs is so huge you'll have trouble lifting it. But opening it is exhilarating and overwhelming. There are treasures within for the most fanatic aficionados.
Don't be wary about investing $1700 in the talents of one conductor. Helmut Rilling is a seasoned Bach conductor. Not a proponent of the period instrument movement, he adopts a spirited modern approach. His orchestral pace is swift, his performers creative. In the harpsichord concertos, expertly performed by Robert Levin, Rilling's tempo is delicious – he treats rests more like notes than pauses.
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 applies the master's glorious counterpoint and polyphonic choral movements with emotive skill. His 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. Unfortunately, all of them have the same boilerplate program notes. Other program notes in the series are more comprehensive.
Hänssler 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). For the most part, this scheme works well. On the Influences of Bohn and Buxtehude disc, the organ pieces are fantastically inventive, particularly BWV 575. Late Works from the Leipzig Period is weighted too heavily toward placid meditative works. 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 carefully modulated 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.
Regarding period instruments, the set is inconsistent. The violoncello piccolo is used in Cantata BWV 6, but not in the sixth Cello Suite #6, for which the piece was scored. Speaking of the Cello Suites, cellist Boris Pergamenschikow plays them well, exploiting the dusky lower registers, although his imitation sequences in the Cello Suite #6 lack Rostropovich's keen individuation.
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 an attractive coffee table book about Bach's life and a 255-page booklet with two helpful indexes to the works. Buy it so that when asked if you own "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern," you can reply "Which one? BWV 739 or BWV 764?"
Copyright © 2001, Peter Bates