BBC Legends – Myra Hess

0 of 5 stars

Prelude in G, BWV902
English Suite in A minor, BWV807
Sonata in E flat [Hoboken 52]
Carnaval, Op.9

Dame Myra Hess (piano)

All recorded in BBC Studios, London – Bach on 2 November 1956, Haydn on 3 January 1962, and Schumann on 13 October 1950

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: December 2006
BBCL 4201-2
Duration: 76 minutes

Myra Hess died in 1965 aged 75 and is another of those pianists whose exposure and reputation has grown with the release of good quality releases of concert performances and radio broadcasts. For British audiences she will always be associated with the World War II National Gallery lunchtime recitals, but she was a great favourite in the USA and Europe. A marvellous live Brahms B flat Concerto, with the New York Philharmonic and Bruno Walter – on a cheap pirate ‘Starportrait’ CD issue – first alerted me to her greatness. On this BBC Legends release Hess plays three composers that she was closely associated with, and, in part, what a joy it is.

Her Bach has line, flow, subtle dynamics and – thank heavens – natural rubato and a beautiful sense of logic and spirituality. That said, the start of the ‘Courante’ (English Suite) is slightly ungainly and untidy, and her Romantic approach to the ‘Sarabande’ may disconcert some. Just over five years later, and after a stroke in 1961, Hess returned to the BBC Studios for the great Haydn Sonata in E flat. She was never to play again; the stroke had been severe and some of her family and friends thought that she had suffered irreversible brain damage. As Jeremy Siepmann says in his booklet note, the engineers had to splice the performance together from numerous takes and the end result is a sketch of what would, a few years earlier, have been a wonderful performance. Here the technical command is compromised. There is a sense of tiredness at the start and finish of the first movement, and the slow movement is edgy and lacks direction, as does the finale where the finger-work is especially weak. Having said that, a pale shadow of greatness still falls over the music-making and its good to have her final session.

The Schumann starts with a flowing tempo for the ‘Préambule’, ‘Pierrot’ is relaxed as is ‘Arlequin’, but rhythmic and tonal nuances eschew any sense of smoothness and ‘Valse noble’ is certainly that, if slightly lacking in a true sense of the dance. Throughout the performance Hess manages to convey all of Schumann’s fantasy and myriad mood-changes. For Schumann aficionados this will be, like the recent BBC Legends issue of Annie Fischer’s Carnaval, an essential purchase.

In terms of recording the worst sound is to be found in 1961 sessions, which are far from true in pitch and appear as though they have been taken from compromised tapes. The 1950s’ performances inevitably suffer from limited dynamic range and occasional distortion, but otherwise they are fine and don’t distract from Hess’s renditions.

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