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Myra Hess - The Complete Solo and Concerto Studio Recordings
See end of review for track-listing
Myra Hess (piano)
Accompaniments as listed below.
rec. 1928-1957
APR RECORDINGS 7504 [5 CDs: 78:51 + 80:43 + 79:39 + 78:07 + 79:30]


 
Myra Hess and I go back a long way. In the mid nineteen-sixties my late father bought a radiogram – complete with multi-stylus feature and auto-changer. I remember that at first he had only two records – one by the great Paul Robeson and the other was the ubiquitous ‘highlights’ from the Huddersfield Choral Society’s recording of Messiah. I had one - Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday EP - I still have it. A few days after this fine piece of furniture had arrived; a colleague of my father’s turned up at the house with a huge pile of 78 and 33 r.p.m. records. Most of them were dedicated to the crooning of Bing Crosby however one disc was totally out of class – it was Dame Myra Hess playing her transcription of ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’. I confess to having been positively bored by this music and preferred Cliff’s ‘Dancing Shoes’. In fact the name stuck due to having recently heard a family legend of how the German wartime RudolfHess leader had parachuted onto Eaglesham Moor just south of Glasgow close to where an old cousin lived ... I had presumed they were related.
 
However, years have flown: Myra Hess’ arrangement and recording of JJMD is, to me, one of the most precious things in the world. I have come to love her playing and to appreciate her massive achievement in the musical world. This present CD is a treasure trove for anyone who has fallen in love with this great pianist and I can guarantee that it will give hours of listening pleasure.
 
I imagine that most readers will have a brief knowledge of Myra’s life and times. However a few biographical notes will be of interest and allow the listener to put this impressive retrospective CD release into context.
 
Myra Hess was born in North London on 25 February 1890. She began her musical education at the Guildhall School of Music, then located at the John Carpenter Street site. She studied under the pianist Julian Pascal and Robert Orlando Morgan. In 1902 Myra won a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. There she studied with Tobias Matthay (Uncle Tobs) and became one of his most distinguished pupils. Other alumni from that era included York Bowen, Clifford Curzon, Moura Lympany and Harriet Cohen. In 1907 she played her debut concert with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Saint-Saëns’ Fourth Piano Concerto under Thomas Beecham at the Queen’s Hall.
 
Many commentators regard her first major success occurring in the Netherlands in 1912 when she played the Schumann Concerto in A minor with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Willem Mengelberg.
 
In January 1922 she made her American debut at the Aeolian Hall in New York. From that time until the outbreak of the Second World War she split her year into three parts – American tour, concerts in Holland and the UK and a two-month working holiday in the country.
 
Myra’s greatest public achievement was the National Gallery Concerts which commenced on 10 October 1939 and continued until 10 April 1946. Unlike some other composers and performers she turned down a lucrative and ‘safe’ American tour to do this important artistic work.
 
After struggling with illness, including arthritis and circulatory problems, Myra Hess gave her last public concert on 31 October 1961 at the Royal Festival Hall under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult. She played the Mozart Piano Concerto in A major. For the next four years she led a somewhat reclusive life and died on 25 November 1965.
 
Myra Hess was awarded a number of honours during her lifetime including a CBE (1936) and a DBE (1941).
 
What is contained in this five CD set? In fact, it is exactly what it says ‘on the tin’. I did a quick cross-check with the ‘Hess Discography’ prepared by F.F. Clough and G.J. Cuming and presented as an appendix to Denise Lassimonne’s book Myra Hess by her Friends (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1966). What has been issued here is the ‘complete commercial recordings of the solo and concerted piano music’. Chamber music has not been included. Unsurprisingly, there are many non-commercial recordings and BBC transcription discs and tapes of American broadcasts that form part of Myra’s recorded legacy.
 
There are so many works presented in this five-disc set, that I do not feel I can discuss each one in detail: I intend to give a brief overview of the corpus and consider a number of personal highlights. Myra Hess had a considerable repertoire. However as she matured, she tended to concentrate on the established classical and romantic repertoire. These are extensively represented in the set.
 
Three names permeate the track-listings – Bach, Brahms and Beethoven. There are three performances of the above mentioned ‘Jesu, joy’. Other examples from Bach’s pen include the Gigue from the French Suite No.5, a Prelude and Fugue in C sharp from Book 1 of the ‘48’ and the ‘Allegro’ from the Toccata in G major BWV916. Any of these pieces will convince the listener that she was an expert at playing this kind of music. I mention the late sonatas of Beethoven in a later paragraph; however I was taken by her charming and ultimately innocent account of ‘Für Elise’. Brahms is represented by a number of his Intermezzi, Waltzes and Capriccios.
 
Maurice Hinson suggests that Schubert’s Sonata in A major D.664 is one of the ‘technically easy’ examples in the set. It is also one of the most performed. I find Myra’s interpretation of this ‘easy’ work both illuminating and largely untroubled. The middle movement impressed me most. It is one of the few Schubert Sonata movements that I can hack/battle my way through. Her moving performance is a master-class. The finale is pure magic.
 
In the early days of her career Myra Hess would regularly play works from the turn of the twentieth century. However, as time went on she tended to drop these from her repertoire. Fortunately she recorded a number of them for the American Columbia label. Included here are Debussy’s Poissons d’or from Images Book 2, the ubiquitous La fille aux cheveux de lin and Minstrels from the Préudes. How could any pianist fail to want to play Ravel’s gorgeous Pavane pour une infante défunte? Other ‘modern’ numbers include a commanding version of Manuel de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance which sounds fresh after 84 years. American audiences must have been grateful for the inclusion of Charles Griffes The White Peacock in recital programmes. Interestingly this piece was inspired by William Sharp/Fiona McLeod’s poem – ‘Deep in the heart of a sea of white violets/Slowly, white as a snow-drift, moves the White Peacock.’ It is an impressionistic dream. This audience would also have loved her rendition of Edward MacDowell’s AD MDCXX from the once popular Sea Pieces Op.55. Here she manages to recreate the profoundly rolling sea that the Mayflower encountered as she headed across the Atlantic. It is a pity that there is no recording of one of her other favourites – Walton O’Donnell’s Before the Dawn. Perhaps one day someone will record it in her honour.
 
I was delighted that a number of British composers appear in the discography. Chief amongst these is the massive Sonata by Howard Ferguson which is a tragic reflection on the death of his piano teacher Harold Samuel. This is one of the misplaced masterpieces of British piano literature. Myra Hess explores the depth of pain and despair with great sympathy and clarity. The short, but compelling Bagatelles are also given here. Interestingly, she performed these works at the National Gallery Concerts, possibly in recognition of Howard Ferguson’s huge contribution to that project.
 
The short selection of pieces by Purcell arranged by Myra are beautifully stated and well suited to the piano. It would be a hard-hearted person who did not melt to her performance of the Nocturne No.4 in A major by the Irish composer John Field. Two treasures are the Album Leaf Op.22 and Elves Op.17 by Tobias Matthay, which are, I believe, the only available recordings. It is a fitting tribute by his pupil whom he regarded as his ‘prophetess’.
 
I felt that the Mozart Piano Concerto No.21 in C major K467 has stood the test of time. This recording was made during 1942. It is my favourite of the set of 27 and I was delighted to find that Myra excels herself. She manages to balance a truly dazzling performance with a studied, gentle touch and thoughtful phrasing. The slow movement was taken at a considerably slower pace than that for which this Elvira Madigan music is best known. Maybe this is too slow for some people. It certainly brings a greater emphasis on introspection – more than is normally encountered. Yet this was wartime: she strikes the mood just right. The Hallé Orchestra is conducted by Leslie Heward.
 
Other works will capture the imagination of listeners. I feel guilty foregoing comment on Schumann’s Carnaval, his Piano Concerto and the great Etudes symphoniques. This latter recording has been criticised as not being Myra at her best. The orchestra join forces for a performance of César Franck’s Variations symphoniques. This was one of Matthay’s warhorses and he apparently encouraged his pupils to ‘take it up’. Hess gives a splendid account of this work exploring the depth of feeling that Franck felt lay ‘under the surface of the melody’ (Hinson).
 
I will be accused of omitting to tell of triumphant performances of some Mendelssohn favourites, a number of beautiful Scarlatti sonatas, the gorgeous The Maiden and the Nightingale by Enrique Granados and a few pieces by Haydn, Dvorák, Palmgren and Chopin.
 
The two Beethoven Sonatas are at the heart of Hess’s achievement. Both works were issued in the early nineteen-fifties and therefore benefit from good sound quality. Howard Ferguson has written that the ‘recording which comes closest to capturing [her] beauty of tone, human warmth and deep musical understanding is … the Beethoven Sonata in E major, Op.109’. It is certainly a revelation. Her performances of the last three piano sonatas had earned her the greatest of respect, especially in Holland. Sir Paul Mason has written a moving little anecdote about these works: one evening his wife had asked Myra whether she understood what Beethoven was trying to say in his last works. Myra apparently reflected for a little and then replied, “No, but I think Beethoven would understand what I have been trying to do when I play them.’ Mason concluded by suggesting that he expected Beethoven had told her!
 
The liner-notes are excellent and provide an essential introductory essay on Myra Hess’s recording career. As noted in my review for the Harriet Cohen set in the same series, it would have been good to have had a few composer dates. It is fine not giving Beethoven, Brahms and Bach’s details but listeners may not have those of Scarlatti, Griffes, Matthay and MacDowell at their fingertips. There are some excellent ‘new’ photographs which I have not seen before. Also included is the well-known picture of her playing the piano complete with fur-coat in an unheated National Gallery.
 
I have outlined the musical content of these five CDs above. However I am amazed at just how many pieces have been included: there are more than 50 works. All five discs are just under/over 80 minutes of playing time. All this is priced at a ‘mere’ £25 (APR Website Price). The value of this collection cannot be faulted.
 
I have noted in the past that I am not a great enthusiast for ‘historical recordings’. If I am honest I usually prefer the latest version - assuming artistic integrity. I have never been too sure what to expect from re-mastered 78 r.p.m. discs and early vinyl. Should all the clicks and hiss have been removed? Does the technology exist to do this? Would we want to do it?
 
The present recordings all contain ‘imperfections’ that would not be tolerated by the fastidious listener of today. However, this is a small price to pay for such a stunning collection of music played by one of the most talented of British pianists.
 
Finally, Arthur Mendel wrote that he doubted ‘that any of Myra’s records will convey to future generations what we found unique in her’. The reason he gave for this contention was her ability to put the listener in direct contact with the music. She had difficulty in imagining an audience at the other end of a chain of electromechanical links – microphone, amplifier, tape, disc, stylus, amplifier, and loudspeaker. He insisted that Myra had to be challenged by an audience ‘physically present’ and that that the ‘moment she lived for was that in which she felt the triumph of achieving communication to people who at all other moments were by comparison strangers to her.’
 
Listening to this music some sixty years after the last track was ‘laid down’ one can sense much of this ‘triumph of communication’ in spite of Arthur Mendel’s reservations. That is because these recordings - plus a few others - are the only record we have of such an inspired pianist.
 

John France
 
 
Track-Listings
 
CD 1 The American Columbia Recordings, 1928–1931 [78:51]
J. S. BACH (1685-1750)/Myra HESS
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring [3.18]
J. S. BACH
Gigue from French Suite No 5 in G, BWV816 [3.20]
Prelude & Fugue in C sharp BWV848 from WTC I [3.21]
Allegro from Toccata in G major, BWV916 [1.58]
Giuseppe Domenico SCARLATTI (1685–1757)
Sonata in C minor L352 (Kk11) [1.58]
Sonata in C major L104 (Kk159) [1.40]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata in A major D664, [18:23]
Franz SCHUBERT /Rudolph GANZ (1877-1972)
Ballet music from ‘Rosamunde’ [3.52]
Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Bagatelle in B flat major Op.119 No. 11 [1.59]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Intermezzo in C major Op.119 No. 3 [1.43]
Capriccio in B minor Op.76 No. 2 [3.25]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Vogel als Prophet Op.82 No. 7 [3.35]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1843)
Song without Words Op.38 No. 6 ‘Duetto’ [2.43]
Song without Words Op. 67 No. 4 ‘Spinning Song’ [1.46]
Selim PALMGREN (1878-1951)
'Cradle song' from Preludes Op. 17 No. 9 [3.24]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Pavane pour une infante défunte [5.52]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Poissons d’or Images, Book 2 No. 3 [3.49]
La fille aux cheveux de lin Préludes I No. 8 [2.21]
Minstrels Préludes I No. 12 [2.07]
Charles GRIFFES (1884-1920)
The White Peacock Op.7 No.1 [4.34]
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
Ritual fire dance from ‘El amor brujo’ [3.42]

CD 2 The English Columbia Recordings, 1933 [80.43]
John FIELD (1782-1837)
Nocturne No 4 in A major [3.39]
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Nocturne in F sharp major Op. 15 No 2 [3.34]
Edward MACDOWELL (1860-1908)
AD MDCXX Op. 55 No 3 [2.51]
Antonin DVORÁK (1841-1904)
Slavonic Dance Op. 46 No 1 (duet with Hamilton Harty) [3.28]
The HMV 78-rpm recordings, 1937–1949
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695) /Myra HESS
Saraband; Minuet; Air [4.43]
Giuseppe Domenico SCARLATTI
Sonata in G major L387 (Kk14) [2.53]
J.S. BACH/Myra HESS
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring [3.31]
Adagio from BWV564 [4.29]
J.S. BACH
Prelude in D major BWV936 [2.29]
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Sonata in D major Hob XVI: 37 I Allegro con brio [4.25]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major K467 - Hallé Orchestra/Leslie Heward [28:53]
Johannes BRAHMS
Capriccio in B minor Op. 76 No. 2 [3.28]
Intermezzo in A flat major Op. 76 No. 3 [3.16]
Intermezzo in E flat major Op. 117 No. 1 [4.56]
Intermezzo in C major Op. 119 No. 3 [1.42]
Capriccio in D minor Op. 116 No. 7 [2.25]

CD 3 The HMV 78-rpm recordings, 1937–1949 (continued) [79:39]
Robert SCHUMANN
Carnaval Op. 9 25 [26:45]
Piano Concerto in A minor Op 54 - Orchestra [not identified]/Walter Goehr [31:48]
Cesar FRANCK (1822-1890)
Variations symphoniques - City Of Birmingham Orchestra/Basil Cameron [15.30]
Tobias MATTHAY (1858-1945)
Album Leaf Op.22 [3.27]
Elves Op.17 [2.08]

CD 4 The HMV 78-rpm recordings, 1937–1949 (continued) [78.07]
Howard FERGUSON (1908-1999)
Five Bagatelles Op.9 [7.19]
Piano Sonata in F minor Op.8 [21:48]
The HMV LPs 1952–1957
Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN
Piano Sonata in E major Op. 109 [21:33]
Piano Sonata in A flat major Op. 110 [20:00]
Klavierstück in A minor ‘Für Elise’ WoO55 [3.15]
Bagatelle in E flat major Op.126 No 3 [3.05]
Felix MENDELSSOHN
Song without Words in A major Op. 102 No 5 [1.06]

CD 5 The HMV LPs, 1952–1957 (continued) [79.30]
Robert SCHUMANN
Piano Concerto in A minor Op.54 - Philharmonia Orchestra/Rudolf Schwarz [32:41]
Études symphoniques Op 13 [26:53]
Giuseppe Domenico SCARLATTI
Sonata in C minor L352 (Kk11) [3.24]
Sonata in G major L387 (Kk14) [2.47]
Enrique GRANADOS (1867-1916)
'The Maiden and the Nightingale' from Goyescas [6.38]
Johannes BRAHMS
Waltz in A flat Op. 39 No. 15 [1.33]
Intermezzo in C major Op. 119 No. 3 [1.48]
J. S. BACH/Myra HESS
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring [3.42]


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