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
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
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.