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Myra Hess (piano) - Live recordings from the University of Illinois 1949
rec. Auditorium of the University of Illinois, March 1949: Ford Broadcasts, rec. March 1937
APR 7306 [3 CDs: 69:39 + 66:53 + 68:51]

This is a 3-CD boxed consolidation of three APR single discs (5520, 5539 and 5549) released between 1997 and 2001. There are two recitals altogether given over two days - 17 and 18 March 1949. The concerts featured solo works followed by a concerto but for the single discs the order was altered to allow everything to fit, with the solo items programmed together. As before, items from the Ford Sunday Evening Hour are included. In the first disc there has been a very slight track change with Chopin’s E flat Waltz separated from the Fantasie in F minor, so Chopin bookends the first disc. Everything else is unchanged and the transfers likewise. Hence my review, now included in one run, remains largely the same.

Myra Hess hated recording. In that she was hardly unique but even amongst musicians of her generation the disparity between studio and live recordings is extreme. This consolidated three-CD conspectus of her live American recordings from the University of Illinois in 1949 is therefore a valuable opportunity to appreciate more fully the exploratory and frequently more galvanized responses of the pianist in the, to her, more human arena of a concert hall.

Hess recorded little Chopin commercially. By 1949 her discography boasted only the Op.15/2 Nocturne, a recording dating from 1931 (it’s on Pearl GEMM CD9462). The existence of the Op.49 Fantasie and the Op.18 Waltz is therefore doubly outstanding; all the more so as it reveals aspects of her playing either subsumed or only hinted at elsewhere. Her Chopin is unexpectedly fiery. The Fantasie is a tour de force of romantic expressivity with some truly thunderous playing aided by some pretty liberal pedalling; the effect is to my ears over-intense and, whilst not out of control, at least unconstrained. What can’t be denied is the passionate conviction of it, its enveloping and declamatory fervour. If you think of Hess from her commercial discs as an adept and discreet performer, playing with patrician restraint, then start here and prepare to be disabused. The Schubert Sonata receives a good performance. Surprisingly, it lacks precisely those qualities of insight and revelation that mark the greatest traversals but in its gemütlich way it is commendably well played, with convincing articulation, though never really probing much beneath the music’s surface.

The Dances are another matter. This thirteen-minute confection comprises German Dances, Waltzes and Ländler and is inimitably introduced by Hess herself. She plays them with such mastery of tone and timing, such thoughtful playfulness and with such evident enjoyment and energy that they are simply irresistible. The Brahms and Scarlatti were staples of her concert giving life and every bit as good as one would expect.

The second volume of APR’s invaluable series finds Myra Hess playing two Mozart concertos closely associated with her. APR itself released a previously unissued 1942 recording of K467 with Hess and the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Leslie Heward. Her 1952 Perpignan recording with Casals is well known. So in a sense this could be seen to be a release ancillary to her known performances. Yet that would be to underestimate the considerable gains in flexibility, in freedom, in Hess’s live performances. This series makes those gains increasingly clear.

In the first volume the Chopin Fantasie was incendiary – in truth too incendiary – and if there are no comparable revelations here there are still very real pleasures. The first is in welcoming the restoration of preserved recordings long known of – not least from the discography in Marian McKenna’s Hess biography – but long inaccessible. The University of Illinois has made their original acetate discs available and Marshall Izen provided tapes of them as well as writing the liner notes – common to all three volumes – and also the delicious cover caricature. The quality of the sound is inevitably compromised and constricted. The balance favours the piano to a degree rather ruinous to the balance but these are the inevitable limitations inherent in live recordings of this kind. We can only be grateful that so much was preserved and that the restoration has made so much listenable.

The University of Illinois Sinfonietta is enthusiastically variable. Wind counter-themes are barely audible in the first movement of K467 and the prominence of the piano allows us to hear Hess’ crystalline runs as, equally, the submerged strings encourage us to concentrate on her articulation of the passagework. She is quicker in the opening movement than she was seven years earlier with Heward – only to be expected given the live nature of the music making – with gains in quicksilver responsiveness. She is especially successful in the sheer limpidity of her phrasing in the slow movement and her perky and lithe playing in the finale. Rather delightfully we can hear her asking the audience if they want to hear the finale again and she then gives it as an encore. As in the Heward recording she uses Denis Matthews’ cadenzas.

Her K271 was recorded the following evening. There is here an engaging and rather stimulating frisson between soloist and orchestra. John Kuypers encourages a rich patina of romantic phrasing within a broadly romanticised frame. Hess is expressive and wholehearted but less obviously romantic than the orchestra and the creative tension engendered is most appealing. There’s no denying the murky sound of orchestra or the sudden drop-out in the slow movement though. Here is Hess, at fifty-nine, playing her beloved Mozart in the most congenial of surroundings and still in infectiously good form.

The final volume in APR’s treasure trove of live recordings concludes in fine style. Not only, once again, does it extend the Hess discography but also it provides an enlightening insight into the nature of her live performances and the aesthetic and stylistic choices that informed her playing.

Bach and Beethoven make up the bulk of the disc – composers especially associated with her – and they deepen our appreciation of her gifts. The Overture of the Fourth Partita explores the tensions and compromises inherent between accented and legato phrasing. Predominantly she favours a steady, fluid and legato style in the Partita, though one capable of generating heat as the conclusion to the opening shows. In the Allemande it is noticeable – and this is not, I think, a quirk of the recording level – that she suppresses the left hand to an appreciable degree - not to limit interdependence of hands or to nullify articulation but rather to create a free flowing and treble oriented sonority. When she chooses simplicity – as in the Aria – she is impressive and when she requires momentum – but not motoric vitesse – as in the concluding Gigue she is assured and memorable. Conversely in the opening movement of the Tempest sonata, after the mysterious and veiled ascending run, Hess is more than happy to conjure strong left hand accents, powerfully shaped lines and a strong and decisively melodic impress. She is indeed effortlessly powerful at 4:30 – power without undue force and certainly without forcing through the tone. There is a splendid set of terraced dynamics in this movement and her sense of drama is genuinely engaged at the conclusion. Her chordal weight in the Adagio and her geniality bring a Haydnesque sense of propriety to the movement; it’s unfortunate that the last few bars of this movement and the very opening of the Allegretto have been lost. She is quite heavy in this final movement, rather emphatic with elegantly rhythmic playing. It’s not the most elemental of Tempests; more equable and sculpted it looks back as much as it looks forward.

There is a bonus in the shape of a transcription of the March 1937 Ford Sunday Evening Hour broadcast. This was a popular and long running coast-to-coast programme. The acetates are very worn and murky in the Grieg with occasional fragmentation but the survival of this performance is a matter of much interest since the Grieg was hardly repertoire associated with Hess. She plays it with a mixture of teasing primness and generous expansiveness. She’s never afraid of strong playing and as she shows in the little Chopin Etudes was splendidly lively in concert. The Bach Gigue finds her in most buoyant and generous form.

This has been an outstandingly successful series of discs – the quality of the transfers, given some intractable problems, has been generously, often triumphantly high. Marshall Izen’s notes, attractive and affectionate, are another pleasurable feature. More even than these, the series has both expanded Hess’s discography and our appreciation and understanding of her as a recreative artist. One can ask for little more.

Jonathan Woolf
Full track-listing

CD 1
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Fantasie in F minor Op. 49 [12:48]
Waltz No. 1 in E flat Op. 18 [4:06]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Sonata No. 21 in B flat D960 [33:44]
Spoken Introduction to the Dances [0:24]
German Dances – selection: D783 Nos. 1-3, 6 and 7: D779 Nos. 1 and 2; 27 [4:51]
German Dances - selection: D783 No. 10: D145 Nos. 2, 9, 10, 12: D969 No.8: D365 No.36: D783 Nos. 15 and 15: D969 Nos 3 and 9: D779 No.13 [8:45]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Intermezzo in C, Op.119/3 [1:30]
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)

Sonata in G, L387 [2:43]

CD 2
Ludwig Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 21 in C K467 [28:12]
Repeat of Finale [6:14]
Piano Concerto No. 9 in E Flat K271 [31:30]
Closing speech [0:11]
University of Illinois Sinfonietta/John M Kuypers
rec. 17-18 March 1949

CD 3
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partita No 4 BWV 828 [28:09]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata No. 17 Op.31/2 Tempest [21:26]
From the Ford Sunday Evening Hour Broadcast
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto Op.16 – First Movement [11:39] *
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Etudes Op.25 Nos. 1 in A flat major [2:46] and 3 in F major [1:55]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
French Suite No 5 BWV 816 – Gigue [2:17]
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Victor Kolar *
rec. 18 March 1949 (Bach Partita No 4, Beethoven) and 7 March 1937 Ford Sunday Evening Hour Broadcast (Grieg, Chopin, Bach French Suite – Gigue)