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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat major Op.19 (1798) [30:44] ¹
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Piano Concerto in A minor Op.54 (1846) [30:58] ²
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Toccata in G major BWV916 [7:29] ³
Myra Hess (piano)
Scottish National Orchestra/Alexander Gibson ¹
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent ²
rec. Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 30 August 1960 ¹, Royal Albert Hall, London, 18 September 1958 ², BBC Studios, London, 13 October 1950 ³
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4178-2 [69:59]
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This was the last performance of the Beethoven given by Myra Hess. It’s certainly not the way one would like to remember her, given the technical frailties exposed, but there are still illuminating moments in the slow movement that remind one of her profound musicianship. It was taped in 1960 five years before her death. Beginning with a reasonable rococo flourish one’s hopes are high but the orchestra is quite murkily recorded and is in any case rather dark-toned. Gibson leads a workmanlike but unbuoyant traversal and the opening movement never develops an appropriate sense of lift. The orchestra sounds too heavy in the slow movement – string separation is not apparent - and this doesn’t dovetail with Hess’s most attractive, yielding phrasing. There’s great delicacy and warmth in her playing here. There’s trouble from time to time in the finale, with Hess stumbling at key moments.

The Schumann was taped only two years earlier but it brings us a Hess in significantly better form technically. She was still giving concerts internationally and there is in fact a live performance in New York with Mitropoulos from earlier in the same year. Something seems to have happened with Sargent on the rostrum. He may have been an insolent martinet but he could certainly galvanise his soloists. I’ve never encountered a Hess performance, commercial or live, that shows her in quite this decisive and forward-moving form. I ascribe a great deal of that to Sargent whose handling of the orchestra may not have been the final word in sectional discipline but who nevertheless succeeded in giving Hess a platform for some rather wonderful playing. She’d recorded the concerto with this same orchestra and Rudolf Schwarz in 1952, as well as making her more celebrated pre-War 78 set with Walter Goehr. The Schwarz lacked the ebullient poetry of the Goehr but the Sargent-led performance shows us another side of the Hess-Schumann matrix.

Yes, the recording is mushy and unsatisfactory but Sargent’s lead is directional and no-nonsense. Hess responds with athletic poeticism. Her first movement tempo is very fast for her; she clips a minute off Mitropoulos and Goehr and in the final two movements speeds up again vis- a- vis the New York performance. The result is a less reflective and more active kind of poetry, with the slow movement turned with delectable charm, delightful dynamic gradients and tangible colour. This is a real find for Hess admirers and will surprise them.

The disc concludes with an excellent performance of Bach’s Toccata in G major BWV916, the high point of which is the powerfully expressive central section, which she explores with total concentration and command.

The relative disappointment of the Beethoven is more than compensated for by the scintillating Schumann. The recorded sound as noted is murky but unproblematic to those experienced in broadcast material. Let’s hope the BBC keeps faith with Hess and continues to delve intelligently into her rare British concert material.

Jonathan Woolf



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