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Dame Myra Hess (piano) Transcriptions of HMV and Columbia 78rpm records
rec. 1928-1941 BIDDULPH LHW050 [79:06]
Myra Hess had a long career as a concert performer; she is particularly remembered for her appearance in a famous documentary film clip that shows London in the grips of World War II where she is seen at the piano entertaining the troops at a National Gallery performance in 1941, an occasion attended by the Queen of George VI. Hess was twice decorated, first with the CBE (1936), then with the DBE (1941) for her excellence as a pianist and for setting up numerous London concerts during the time of hostilities between 1939 and 1945. For an in-depth biography see John France’s review, which is very detailed.
Born in London, Hess made her concert debut under Thomas Beecham in 1907 at the Queen’s Hall. This occasion was the springboard for an important invitation by Sir Henry Wood to perform as a soloist at his Promenade concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. Over the years she made 93 appearances at the Albert Hall concerts and others, and reached a zenith of her popularity in the 1920s. A student of the revered Tobias Matthay of the Royal Academy of Music, she owed a lot to him and his family for their friendship and regular visits to their home. She remembered him by recording one of his pieces, which is included on this disc. She generally focused much of her interest on works by the famous German composers, even though she was equally happy with readings of Chopin or Debussy and other French composers.
As for her performances on record, Hess strove for perfection. It is interesting for those of us who know of Hess’s recordings to comprehend the quality of performance as judged by both the artiste and recording company in a comparison of the record matrix numbers to see how many takes were required for them to reach the necessary level of satisfaction. The CD booklet details the matrix numbers but does not show the important postscript and so out of interest they are given in full below. From them we can see that there were up to seven takes made of a certain piece (-7) while for many the first take (-1) was used for the pressings. We can also see that for the early recordings there must have been a certain amount of insecurity shown in Hess’s playing because many takes were made and in this regard the Scarlatti Sonata used a 7th take for the pressing.
Myra Hess preferred the presence of an an audience to enthuse her and so the bleak confines of a recording studio were not particularly to her liking, which explains why she left it as late as 1927 to cut her first disc, Her sister, Irene, on the other hand had cut discs in the early 1920s. As Hess’s confidence grew over the decades so did the quality of her performances in the studio, and the time spent there in making marketable recordings was reduced considerably. This must have been a joy to both Columbia and HMV, to have first takes which were acceptable. (A safety take was usual in case the delicate and vulnerable wax master became damaged, but as we see from the matrix numbers the reserve master was not needed.) We can also tell that Hess took a lot of trouble in the late 1930s recordings to get her Schumann Carnaval performance right, since this could enhance her reputation. We can see that the first takes of this work were never used in the pressings.
The pieces have been fairly well transcribed for this CD and the depth of frequency range is remarkably good. They generally match up to the excellent benchmark transcription engineering of Alan Bunting, for Guild. A little noise on some tracks is evident yet surprisingly this is not always confined to the early recordings.
As a sample of Hess’s brilliance I find her Rosamunde to be nicely paced and she teases out the majesty of some of the Canaval numbers as if accompanying a ballet. Her pace is generally brisk and her demi-semiquaver filigree is heard to perfection. The Schumann Carnaval comes across as inventive in its various colourful numbers. Not all of the Carnival pieces come across as particularly inspired, but the majority carry the work with interest and delight. Throughout, the piano is closely miked with minimal background acoustic, as befitting a small studio of the time. The feeling is always that Hess is in control and is well focused.
The booklet carries good notes by Wayne Kiley on the pianist, in English.
Raymond J Walker Contents
BACH/HESS, Jesu, joy of man’s desiring, Jan 1940 matrix 0EA 8340-3
BACH, Allegro from Toccata in G major, BWV916, Apr 1929 matrix W 148376-4
SCARLATTI, Sonata in C major L104 (Kk159), Feb 1928 matrix W 145638-7
SCARLATTI, Sonata in G major L387 (Kk14), Jan 1940 matrix 0EA 8341-1
Selim PALMGREN, Cradle song from Preludes Op 17, No 9, 1931
Charles T. GRIFFES, The white peacock Op 7 No 1,
Tobias MATTHAY, Elves Op 17, April 1938 matrix 0EA 6606-1
Howard FERGUSON Piano Sonata in F minor Op 8, Nov 1942 Lento – Allegro inquieto Poco adagio matrices 2EA 9292-1, 9293-2, 9294-2, 9295-1 & 9296-2 Allegro non troppo – Allegro molto ma non presto – Lento
SCHUMANN Vogel als Prophet Op 82 No 7, Feb 1931 matrix W 151458-1
BRAHMS Intermezzo in A flat major Op 76 No 3, April 1941 matrix 0EA 9303-1
SCHUBERT/GANZ Ballet music from Rosamunde, Feb 1928 matrix W 98465-3
SCHUMANN Carnaval Op 9, Mar & Apr 1938 Préambule Pierrot Arlequin Valse noble Eusebius Florestan Coquette Réplique Papillons A.S.C.H. – S.C.H.A. (Lettres dansantes) Chiarina Chopin Estrella Reconnaissance Pantalon et Colombine Valse allemande Paganini: Intermezzo Aveu Promenade Pause Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins
matrices 2EA 6136-3, 6137-3, 6138-5, 6139-2, 6188-4 & 6189-3
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