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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Myra Hess (1890-1965); the complete pre-War Schumann recordings
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Carnaval Op. 9 (1833-35)
Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54 (1841-45)
Vogel als Prophet from Waldszenen Op. 82 No. 7 1848-49)
Myra Hess (piano)
Orchestra conducted by Walter Goehr
Recorded 1931-38
NAXOS 8.110604 [62.12]


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Pianophiles will either wince or smile – according to taste – at the memory of Abram Chasins’ outrageously florid passages on English musicians in his book ‘Speaking of Pianists’: All within this gracious assemblage have long breathed the reposeful air of England, he wrote with a baroque flourish allowing that I have been charmed by Myra Hess and her art since I first went to London. On only a few occasions has her playing been that of a great pianist. Which of course begs several questions too big to deal with here though one question does spring to mind; had he heard her Schumann?

Naxos here compiles all Hess’s few pre-War Schumann recordings. They display all her virtues of characterisation, tonal allure, unforced drama and a kind of vanity-shorn rightness that constantly illuminates the text. There is nothing at all outsize about these performances; the Concerto in particular doesn’t aspire to the heaven-storming heights and it is I think, in any case, inferior in terms of greatness of understanding and conveyance of inner meaning to Carnaval, which here receives one of the great gramophonic readings. Hess for example would never have contemplated the piston hammered Papillons of, say, Simon Barere (he’s in my thoughts because I’m reviewing a live Carnegie Hall concert but he stands as representative of an altogether different Schumann aesthetic, a kinetic, vertiginous and sometimes ungovernable one). It’s difficult to appreciate quite how difficult to achieve is Hess’s naturalness of expression. Her rubati are unforced, her colourings and voicings perfectly apposite. The più moto of the Préambule however is fantastically fluent, her Arlequin truly insouciant, her left hand in the Valse noble vivid and beautiful, Eusebius gravely and deeply poetic. Papillon then is fast but not hammered – it has a skipping elegance not a pneumatic insistence – and if Chopin is hardly agitato as marked then it loses nothing in depth of utterance. How many other pianists really explore the rhythmic implications of the Valse allemande as does Hess; how many reconcile the lyrical and the passionate that lie at the heart of Paganini. In every way this is a desert island Carnaval.

The piquancies of Vogel als Prophet are explored in a 1931 New York recording but the other principal reason for acquiring this disc is the Concerto. This is her earlier recording; she made another recording of it in 1954 with Rudolf Schwarz. Still I don’t think memories of the later recording will efface certain imperishable features of this earlier one. The A flat major episode in the first movement is gorgeously but not indulgently poetic, with the echoing clarinet phrases prominent. Hess’s sense of movement and tempo relation was seldom as necessary as in this work, and her sovereign control of tonal gradation treasurable. In the cadenza her quasi-improvisatory way is strongly animated and persuasive. Her Intermezzo has an elfin and rarefied charm and she matches her phrasing with that of the orchestral statements with architectural and tonal sagacity. She absorbs the contrastive sections of the finale with glittering but cool musicality and there is no heroic driving peroration. If this finale doesn’t galvanize, ignite, combust – or what you will – it’s playing entirely consonant with Hess’ approach as a whole and wholeness was very much her great gift as a Schumann player.

Nalen Antoni’s thought-provoking note lays bare the Schumann performance tradition from which Hess emerged. The transfer of Carnaval is good but I had trouble with the Concerto – there’s a slightly opaque and muffled quality to it that I found lacked clarity. As for florid Abram Chasins I have to say I found Hess both charming and a great pianist, in the Carnaval at least.

Jonathan Woolf

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