Myra Hess and I go back a long way. In the mid nineteen-sixties my
late father bought a radiogram – complete with multi-stylus feature
and auto-changer. I remember that at first he had only two records
– one by the great Paul Robeson and the other was the ubiquitous ‘highlights’
from the Huddersfield Choral Society’s recording of Messiah.
I had one - Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday EP - I still have
it. A few days after this fine piece of furniture had arrived; a colleague
of my father’s turned up at the house with a huge pile of 78 and 33
r.p.m. records. Most of them were dedicated to the crooning of Bing
Crosby however one disc was totally out of class – it was Dame Myra
Hess playing her transcription of ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’. I
confess to having been positively bored by this music and preferred
Cliff’s ‘Dancing Shoes’. In fact the name stuck due to having recently
heard a family legend of how the German wartime RudolfHess leader
had parachuted onto Eaglesham Moor just south of Glasgow close to
where an old cousin lived ... I had presumed they were related.
However, years have flown: Myra Hess’ arrangement and recording of
JJMD is, to me, one of the most precious things in the world. I have
come to love her playing and to appreciate her massive achievement
in the musical world. This present CD is a treasure trove for anyone
who has fallen in love with this great pianist and I can guarantee
that it will give hours of listening pleasure.
I imagine that most readers will have a brief knowledge of Myra’s
life and times. However a few biographical notes will be of interest
and allow the listener to put this impressive retrospective CD release
Myra Hess was born in North London on 25 February 1890. She began
her musical education at the Guildhall School of Music, then located
at the John Carpenter Street site. She studied under the pianist Julian
Pascal and Robert Orlando Morgan. In 1902 Myra won a scholarship at
the Royal Academy of Music. There she studied with Tobias Matthay
(Uncle Tobs) and became one of his most distinguished pupils. Other
alumni from that era included York Bowen, Clifford Curzon, Moura Lympany
and Harriet Cohen. In 1907 she played her debut concert with Beethoven’s
Fourth Piano Concerto and Saint-Saëns’ Fourth Piano Concerto under
Thomas Beecham at the Queen’s Hall.
Many commentators regard her first major success occurring in the
Netherlands in 1912 when she played the Schumann Concerto in A minor
with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Willem Mengelberg.
In January 1922 she made her American debut at the Aeolian Hall in
New York. From that time until the outbreak of the Second World War
she split her year into three parts – American tour, concerts in Holland
and the UK and a two-month working holiday in the country.
Myra’s greatest public achievement was the National Gallery Concerts
which commenced on 10 October 1939 and continued until 10 April 1946.
Unlike some other composers and performers she turned down a lucrative
and ‘safe’ American tour to do this important artistic work.
After struggling with illness, including arthritis and circulatory
problems, Myra Hess gave her last public concert on 31 October 1961
at the Royal Festival Hall under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult. She
played the Mozart Piano Concerto in A major. For the next four years
she led a somewhat reclusive life and died on 25 November 1965.
Myra Hess was awarded a number of honours during her lifetime including
a CBE (1936) and a DBE (1941).
What is contained in this five CD set? In fact, it is exactly what
it says ‘on the tin’. I did a quick cross-check with the ‘Hess Discography’
prepared by F.F. Clough and G.J. Cuming and presented as an appendix
to Denise Lassimonne’s book Myra Hess by her Friends (Hamish
Hamilton, London, 1966). What has been issued here is the ‘complete
commercial recordings of the solo and concerted piano
music’. Chamber music has not been included. Unsurprisingly, there
are many non-commercial recordings and BBC transcription discs and
tapes of American broadcasts that form part of Myra’s recorded legacy.
There are so many works presented in this five-disc set, that I do
not feel I can discuss each one in detail: I intend to give a brief
overview of the corpus and consider a number of personal highlights.
Myra Hess had a considerable repertoire. However as she matured, she
tended to concentrate on the established classical and romantic repertoire.
These are extensively represented in the set.
Three names permeate the track-listings – Bach, Brahms and Beethoven.
There are three performances of the above mentioned ‘Jesu, joy’. Other
examples from Bach’s pen include the Gigue from the French Suite No.5,
a Prelude and Fugue in C sharp from Book 1 of the ‘48’ and the ‘Allegro’
from the Toccata in G major BWV916. Any of these pieces will convince
the listener that she was an expert at playing this kind of music.
I mention the late sonatas of Beethoven in a later paragraph; however
I was taken by her charming and ultimately innocent account of ‘Für
Elise’. Brahms is represented by a number of his Intermezzi, Waltzes
Maurice Hinson suggests that Schubert’s Sonata in A major D.664 is
one of the ‘technically easy’ examples in the set. It is also one
of the most performed. I find Myra’s interpretation of this ‘easy’
work both illuminating and largely untroubled. The middle movement
impressed me most. It is one of the few Schubert Sonata movements
that I can hack/battle my way through. Her moving performance is a
master-class. The finale is pure magic.
In the early days of her career Myra Hess would regularly play works
from the turn of the twentieth century. However, as time went on she
tended to drop these from her repertoire. Fortunately she recorded
a number of them for the American Columbia label. Included here are
Debussy’s Poissons d’or from Images Book 2, the
ubiquitous La fille aux cheveux de lin and Minstrels
from the Préudes. How could any pianist fail to want to play
Ravel’s gorgeous Pavane pour une infante défunte? Other ‘modern’
numbers include a commanding version of Manuel de Falla’s Ritual
Fire Dance which sounds fresh after 84 years. American audiences
must have been grateful for the inclusion of Charles Griffes The
White Peacock in recital programmes. Interestingly this piece
was inspired by William Sharp/Fiona McLeod’s poem – ‘Deep in the heart
of a sea of white violets/Slowly, white as a snow-drift, moves the
White Peacock.’ It is an impressionistic dream. This audience would
also have loved her rendition of Edward MacDowell’s AD MDCXX
from the once popular Sea Pieces Op.55. Here she manages
to recreate the profoundly rolling sea that the Mayflower encountered
as she headed across the Atlantic. It is a pity that there is no recording
of one of her other favourites – Walton O’Donnell’s Before the
Dawn. Perhaps one day someone will record it in her honour.
I was delighted that a number of British composers appear in the discography.
Chief amongst these is the massive Sonata by Howard Ferguson which
is a tragic reflection on the death of his piano teacher Harold Samuel.
This is one of the misplaced masterpieces of British piano literature.
Myra Hess explores the depth of pain and despair with great sympathy
and clarity. The short, but compelling Bagatelles are also
given here. Interestingly, she performed these works at the National
Gallery Concerts, possibly in recognition of Howard Ferguson’s huge
contribution to that project.
The short selection of pieces by Purcell arranged by Myra are beautifully
stated and well suited to the piano. It would be a hard-hearted person
who did not melt to her performance of the Nocturne No.4 in A major
by the Irish composer John Field. Two treasures are the Album
Leaf Op.22 and Elves Op.17 by Tobias Matthay, which
are, I believe, the only available recordings. It is a fitting tribute
by his pupil whom he regarded as his ‘prophetess’.
I felt that the Mozart Piano Concerto No.21 in C major K467 has stood
the test of time. This recording was made during 1942. It is my favourite
of the set of 27 and I was delighted to find that Myra excels herself.
She manages to balance a truly dazzling performance with a studied,
gentle touch and thoughtful phrasing. The slow movement was taken
at a considerably slower pace than that for which this Elvira
Madigan music is best known. Maybe this is too slow for some
people. It certainly brings a greater emphasis on introspection –
more than is normally encountered. Yet this was wartime: she strikes
the mood just right. The Hallé Orchestra is conducted by Leslie Heward.
Other works will capture the imagination of listeners. I feel guilty
foregoing comment on Schumann’s Carnaval, his Piano Concerto
and the great Etudes symphoniques. This latter recording
has been criticised as not being Myra at her best. The orchestra join
forces for a performance of César Franck’s Variations symphoniques.
This was one of Matthay’s warhorses and he apparently encouraged his
pupils to ‘take it up’. Hess gives a splendid account of this work
exploring the depth of feeling that Franck felt lay ‘under the surface
of the melody’ (Hinson).
I will be accused of omitting to tell of triumphant performances of
some Mendelssohn favourites, a number of beautiful Scarlatti sonatas,
the gorgeous The Maiden and the Nightingale by Enrique Granados
and a few pieces by Haydn, Dvorák, Palmgren and Chopin.
The two Beethoven Sonatas are at the heart of Hess’s achievement.
Both works were issued in the early nineteen-fifties and therefore
benefit from good sound quality. Howard Ferguson has written that
the ‘recording which comes closest to capturing [her] beauty of tone,
human warmth and deep musical understanding is … the Beethoven Sonata
in E major, Op.109’. It is certainly a revelation. Her performances
of the last three piano sonatas had earned her the greatest of respect,
especially in Holland. Sir Paul Mason has written a moving little
anecdote about these works: one evening his wife had asked Myra whether
she understood what Beethoven was trying to say in his last works.
Myra apparently reflected for a little and then replied, “No, but
I think Beethoven would understand what I have been trying to do when
I play them.’ Mason concluded by suggesting that he expected Beethoven
had told her!
The liner-notes are excellent and provide an essential introductory
essay on Myra Hess’s recording career. As noted in my review for the
Harriet Cohen set in the same series, it would have been good to have
had a few composer dates. It is fine not giving Beethoven, Brahms
and Bach’s details but listeners may not have those of Scarlatti,
Griffes, Matthay and MacDowell at their fingertips. There are some
excellent ‘new’ photographs which I have not seen before. Also included
is the well-known picture of her playing the piano complete with fur-coat
in an unheated National Gallery.
I have outlined the musical content of these five CDs above. However
I am amazed at just how many pieces have been included: there are
more than 50 works. All five discs are just under/over 80 minutes
of playing time. All this is priced at a ‘mere’ £25 (APR Website Price).
The value of this collection cannot be faulted.
I have noted in the past that I am not a great enthusiast for ‘historical
recordings’. If I am honest I usually prefer the latest version -
assuming artistic integrity. I have never been too sure what to expect
from re-mastered 78 r.p.m. discs and early vinyl. Should all the clicks
and hiss have been removed? Does the technology exist to do this?
Would we want to do it?
The present recordings all contain ‘imperfections’ that would not
be tolerated by the fastidious listener of today. However, this is
a small price to pay for such a stunning collection of music played
by one of the most talented of British pianists.
Finally, Arthur Mendel wrote that he doubted ‘that any of Myra’s records
will convey to future generations what we found unique in her’. The
reason he gave for this contention was her ability to put the listener
in direct contact with the music. She had difficulty in imagining
an audience at the other end of a chain of electromechanical links
– microphone, amplifier, tape, disc, stylus, amplifier, and loudspeaker.
He insisted that Myra had to be challenged by an audience ‘physically
present’ and that that the ‘moment she lived for was that in which
she felt the triumph of achieving communication to people who at all
other moments were by comparison strangers to her.’
Listening to this music some sixty years after the last track was
‘laid down’ one can sense much of this ‘triumph of communication’
in spite of Arthur Mendel’s reservations. That is because these recordings
- plus a few others - are the only record we have of such an inspired
CD 1 The American Columbia Recordings, 1928–1931 [78:51]
J. S. BACH (1685-1750)/Myra HESS
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring [3.18]
J. S. BACH
Gigue from French Suite No 5 in G, BWV816 [3.20]
Prelude & Fugue in C sharp BWV848 from WTC I [3.21]
Allegro from Toccata in G major, BWV916 [1.58]
Giuseppe Domenico SCARLATTI (1685–1757)
Sonata in C minor L352 (Kk11) [1.58]
Sonata in C major L104 (Kk159) [1.40]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata in A major D664, [18:23]
Franz SCHUBERT /Rudolph GANZ (1877-1972)
Ballet music from ‘Rosamunde’ [3.52]
Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Bagatelle in B flat major Op.119 No. 11 [1.59]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Intermezzo in C major Op.119 No. 3 [1.43]
Capriccio in B minor Op.76 No. 2 [3.25]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Vogel als Prophet Op.82 No. 7 [3.35]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1843)
Song without Words Op.38 No. 6 ‘Duetto’ [2.43]
Song without Words Op. 67 No. 4 ‘Spinning Song’ [1.46]
Selim PALMGREN (1878-1951)
'Cradle song' from Preludes Op. 17 No. 9 [3.24]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Pavane pour une infante défunte [5.52]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Poissons d’or Images, Book 2 No. 3 [3.49]
La fille aux cheveux de lin Préludes I No. 8 [2.21]
Minstrels Préludes I No. 12 [2.07]
Charles GRIFFES (1884-1920)
The White Peacock Op.7 No.1 [4.34]
Manuel de FALLA (1876-1946)
Ritual fire dance from ‘El amor brujo’ [3.42]
CD 2 The English Columbia Recordings, 1933 [80.43]
John FIELD (1782-1837)
Nocturne No 4 in A major [3.39]
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Nocturne in F sharp major Op. 15 No 2 [3.34]
Edward MACDOWELL (1860-1908)
AD MDCXX Op. 55 No 3 [2.51]
Antonin DVORÁK (1841-1904)
Slavonic Dance Op. 46 No 1 (duet with Hamilton Harty) [3.28]
The HMV 78-rpm recordings, 1937–1949
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695) /Myra HESS
Saraband; Minuet; Air [4.43]
Giuseppe Domenico SCARLATTI
Sonata in G major L387 (Kk14) [2.53]
J.S. BACH/Myra HESS
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring [3.31]
Adagio from BWV564 [4.29]
Prelude in D major BWV936 [2.29]
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Sonata in D major Hob XVI: 37 I Allegro con brio [4.25]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major K467 - Hallé Orchestra/Leslie Heward
Capriccio in B minor Op. 76 No. 2 [3.28]
Intermezzo in A flat major Op. 76 No. 3 [3.16]
Intermezzo in E flat major Op. 117 No. 1 [4.56]
Intermezzo in C major Op. 119 No. 3 [1.42]
Capriccio in D minor Op. 116 No. 7 [2.25]
CD 3 The HMV 78-rpm recordings, 1937–1949 (continued) [79:39]
Carnaval Op. 9 25 [26:45]
Piano Concerto in A minor Op 54 - Orchestra [not identified]/Walter
Cesar FRANCK (1822-1890)
Variations symphoniques - City Of Birmingham Orchestra/Basil Cameron [15.30]
Tobias MATTHAY (1858-1945)
Album Leaf Op.22 [3.27]
Elves Op.17 [2.08]
CD 4 The HMV 78-rpm recordings, 1937–1949 (continued) [78.07]
Howard FERGUSON (1908-1999)
Five Bagatelles Op.9 [7.19]
Piano Sonata in F minor Op.8 [21:48]
The HMV LPs 1952–1957
Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN
Piano Sonata in E major Op. 109 [21:33]
Piano Sonata in A flat major Op. 110 [20:00]
Klavierstück in A minor ‘Für Elise’ WoO55 [3.15]
Bagatelle in E flat major Op.126 No 3 [3.05]
Song without Words in A major Op. 102 No 5 [1.06]
CD 5 The HMV LPs, 1952–1957 (continued) [79.30]
Piano Concerto in A minor Op.54 - Philharmonia Orchestra/Rudolf Schwarz
Études symphoniques Op 13 [26:53]
Giuseppe Domenico SCARLATTI
Sonata in C minor L352 (Kk11) [3.24]
Sonata in G major L387 (Kk14) [2.47]
Enrique GRANADOS (1867-1916)
'The Maiden and the Nightingale' from Goyescas [6.38]
Waltz in A flat Op. 39 No. 15 [1.33]
Intermezzo in C major Op. 119 No. 3 [1.48]
J. S. BACH/Myra HESS
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring [3.42]