Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases

Bach ‘Notebooks for Anna Magdalena’: Esfahani, Sampson (Hyperion CD) ★★★★★

The two slim notebooks of music presented by Bach to his second wife – a professional singer 15 years younger than her husband – are a priceless cultural artefact. Anna Magdalena carried on singing after her marriage, finding time to conceive 14 children, and on this disc Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord and clavichord) and soprano Carolyn Sampson gives us an entertaining and beautifully performed selection of what music the couple played and sang for instruction and entertainment at home. They include works by Bach, two of his sons, Couperin, Hasse and Gottfried Heinrich St√∂lzel whose operatic aria ‘Bist du bei mir’ – long mistakenly attributed to Bach – is ravishingly sung by Sampson and sensitively accompanied by Esfahani who also contributes the informative booklet notes. His playing is always intelligent, incisive and intriguingly embellished. There are familiar works – the 'Aria' from the ‘Goldberg Variations’ and the 'Prelude' from ‘The Well-tempered Clavier Book 1’ but rarities too like Hasse’s ‘Polonaise in G major’.

Brahms ‘Piano Trios Vol.1’: Greenwich Trio (Linn Records CD) ★★★

The first volume in the Greenwich Trio’s survey of Brahms’ chamber music has many good qualities but falls short of the finest rivals in this extensively recorded repertoire. The Piano Trio No.2 in C major, for example, is strongly played, direct and unfussy but I never sense that the players are getting below the surface to the shadowy depths that are present in all Brahms’ trios no matter how straightforward they may appear at first. In the opening Allegro they go for declamatory power and volume rather than the arrestingly sinister undertones that Augustin Dumay, Jian Wang and Maria Joao Pires (DG) find. The String Sextet No.2 in G major is performed in a transcription by Theodor Kirchner, approved by Brahms, which is not only no match for the original but fails to prove an interesting alternative. The Adagio – sublime and translucent in the original – never soars above the pedestrian here.

Beecham Conducts Richard Strauss’: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Beecham (Somm Recordings CD) ★★★

Sir Thomas Beecham was a fine conductor of Richard Strauss’s tone poems – his lithe and limber 1947 recording of ‘Ein Heldenleben’ is a top choice for many Straussians – and this disc has live recordings of ‘Macbeth’, ‘Don Juan’, ‘Till Euelenspiegel’, Salome’s ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ and the Suite from ‘Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme’. Simon Rattle once said that the dead acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall (where these mono recordings were made in 1955-6) made him lose the will to live – so don’t expect a sonic showpiece despite the best efforts of audio restorer Lani Spahr. That said this is Beecham’s own hand-picked orchestra and he was justly proud of his principal players – listen for Jack Brymer (clarinet), Gwydion Brooke (bassoon) and Alan Civil (horn) – and you’ll be beguiled. The ‘Gentilhomme’ Suite was tailor-made for Beecham’s polished elegance but his 1947 EMI studio recording, in far better sound, is the one to acquire.

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