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Myra Hess (piano)
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Prelude in G major BWV 902 (1720) [4:04]
English Suite No.2 in A minor BWV 807 (1715) [20:56]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Piano Sonata No.62 in E flat major Hob.XVI:52 (1794) [21:15]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Carnaval Op.9 (1834) [26:33]
Myra Hess (piano)
rec.  BBC Studios, London, 1950 (Schumann), 1956 (Bach), 1962 (Haydn)
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4201-2 [75:36]

The BBC continues its good reclamation work in broadcast Hess material. The earliest recording is the Schumann, which dates from 1950. Hess’s 1938 commercial recording of Carnaval has been long admired and its most recent incarnation on Naxos, along with her other pre-War Schumann recordings, is special.

Her visit to the BBC studios produced a performance that doesn’t differ materially in most respects from what we know of her earlier playing. Naturally, as with all great players, there are minor differences – chord weighting, voice leading, a certain degree of pedalling as well. But her conception remains as consistently illuminating and perceptive, as wholly musical and free of artifice as ever it was. One would only point to a couple of details to illuminate the way in which Hess had rethought detail – or maybe it would be more judicious to say that she had rethought detail on that particular broadcast. Eusebius does however show a tightening up of tempo and also therefore in its relationship to the preceding Valse noble and to Florestan with which it is explicitly contrasted. In her BBC broadcast Hess deliberately strips back the overt romanticism of her 1938 performance to present something somewhat more linear, less heavily chorded, less mellowly pedalled; it unfolds therefore with a somewhat clearer-eyed strength. In these small particularities we can follow, as far as is possible, Hess’s lifelong association with Schumann and with Carnaval in particular.

The Bach session from 1950 shows us Hess in fine, communicative and intensely human form. The Prelude in G is played with distinction, exuding a rapt spirituality devoid of glamour. And the English Suite in A minor is similarly engaged and engaging. A few split notes and the like are of little account when the playing is so honest and buoyant. As one might expect the Sarabande is laid out with reserves of feeling and both Bourrées are full of the kind of dedicated élan that Hess could produce when not fettered by recording restraints – or fears of them.

The last item I was rather dreading. The Haydn was her final public performance of anything, anywhere. Having long ago internalised Marian McKenna’s Hess biography and the desperate final details of Hess’s decline I was expecting the worst. Booklet annotator Jeremy Siepmann quotes a passage from the biography regarding the BBC engineer’s splicing together the performance to make it acceptable for broadcast. This comment was actually made by Hess’s niece Beryl Davis in an interview in 1970. It’s well known that an earlier Schubert broadcast – which is still extant – was deeply depressing; we have Howard Ferguson’s testimony on that score, as he regularly turned the pages for Hess - as he does on this Haydn broadcast. The performance of the Haydn is rather heavy and a touch idiosyncratic – Hess divests the opening theme of a few notes - and in the finale reluctant to get airborne. That said it’s not as disastrous as I’d been expecting; if the BBC scissors really did get to work on it between recording and transmission then they did a good job. It would be intriguing to know just how the Schubert B minor sounds.

There’s some tape hiss on the Schumann but it’s otherwise in very presentable studio sound. The Bach is slightly boxy but again of little account. It’s a matter of great pleasure that so much live and broadcast material has been issued by APR and the BBC of late. Long may that continue. Now let’s have all of Hess’s concerto collaborations with Boult.

Jonathan Woolf



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