Harmonia Mundi's two-disc set called The Essential Bach does indeed provide a clear view of the essential Bach in a compact package even if it cannot hope to represent the fullness of the composer's output. Starting with a suitably sparkling performance of the opening movement of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin is a good move, and following that with an appropriately gloomy performance of the closing movements of the St. Matthew Passion by the Choeur et Orchestre du Collegium Vocale Ghent is a brilliant countermove. From there on, things get a bit dodgy: a moody performance of the Prelude from the C minor Cello Suite by Jean-Guihen Queyas followed by a meditative performance of the first Prelude and Fugue from the First Book of the Well-Tempered Clavier by harpsichordist Richard Egarr, then followed by a wild and wooly performance of the Toccata and Fuge in D minor arranged for solo violin with daredevil aplomb by Andrew Manze. And that's only halfway through the first disc with many more delights and surprises to come.
Some may question a few of the choices. Why all of the Cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen? Why just the sixteenth variation from the Goldberg Variations? Why, after all period instruments performances, close with the Pastorale in C minor played on a Steinway grand? These questions are unanswerable to the listener. But to the question "does this two-disc set provide a view of the essential Bach?" The answer is yes. The Bach who emerges here piece by piece and performance by performance is the essential Bach: a virtuoso, a man, a mystic, and a composer of profound greatness.