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Myra Hess. Live recordings from the University of Illinois. Volume 3
J S BACH (1685-1750)

Partita No 4 BWV 828
French Suite No 5 BWV 816 – Gigue
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata No 17 Op.31/2 Tempest
Eduard GRIEG (1843-1907)

Piano Concerto Op.16 – First Movement *
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Etudes Op.25 Nos 1 and 3
Myra Hess, piano
Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Victor Kolar *
Recorded 18 March 1949 (Bach Partita No 4, Beethoven) and 7 March 1937 Ford Sunday Evening Hour Broadcast (Grieg, Chopin, Bach French Suite – Gigue)
APR 5549 [68’51]

The final volume in APR’s treasure trove of live recordings from Myra Hess’s sojourn at the University of Illinois 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 there is a very bad side join at 4’14 in the Grieg with succeeding 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. The 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 creative artist. One can ask for little more.

Jonathan Woolf


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