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Dame Myra Hess


One of the most beloved pianists was a more impassioned performer than her studio recordings reveal.

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ISSN: 2792-8349

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International Journal of Music

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Dame Myra Hess remains one of the most beloved pianists of her generation, venerated in particular by the British public for having created lunchtime concerts throughout World War 2. But like many of the pianists explored in this Piano Files series, even amongst her admirers Hess might not be appreciated for the full scope of her capabilities because her recordings reveal but a glimmer of what and how she played in concert.

Hess was born February 25, 1890 (132 years to the day from the date of this publication) and she is still one of the most beloved British musicians of all time, particularly remembered for her transcription and playing of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Over the course of her decades-long career, Hess toured the world but only produced about 5 CDs’ worth of solo recordings; however, there is considerably more than that in concert and broadcast performances that have been issued, and these reveal fascinating facets of her inspired pianism.

Because her career spanned great evolutions in recording technology (she made her first discs in 1928 and her last in 1957), many of her early performances were not available until labels more recently began doing more comprehensive overviews of artists’ complete discographies. In her early years, Hess recorded a number of works by composers that most do not imagine her playing because she left no later accounts of their music: Debussy, Ravel, Falla… even Chopin she did not put on disc in the 1950s. How fascinating, then, to hear this beloved artist who continues to be recognized primarily for her playing of Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms in these scintillating 1928 performances of Debussy, with ravishing colours and gorgeous tone:

Hess made no secret of the fact that she hated recording — and that’s the word she used: “I hate it. I hate all machines! I hate this microphone!” she exclaimed into her interviewer’s microphone, adding, “I try never to judge a performance finally, even when it’s broadcast — there’s always that between the listener and the player, some mechanical device.” When asked if she felt that way about all of her recordings, she also answered affirmatively — though under duress she admitted that “bits of the Carnaval and Beethoven Op.109” might be not so bad. How amazing that she held this attitude towards her recordings when they are considered among the glories of the gramophone.

If Hess felt her recordings did not represent her pianism, how did play at other times? It seems that the distinguished and charming lady who was beloved for that sumptuous Bach chorale could also deliver hair-raising performances filled with passion. Here is a 1949 concert recording of Chopin’s Fantasy in F Minor Op.49, a reading volcanic in temperament that is at odds with the public perception of the artist. There is indeed beautiful fluid phrasing with long legato lines and poised voicing in the more lyrical sections, but it is the emphatic declamations and massive fortissimos that will surely give listeners a jolt. The depth of tone is remarkable, but also how the bass travels through all of the other registers rather than remaining ‘down there’ — and the emotional intensity is on a level that we would more readily associate with other pianists of her generation.

A recording that collectors have long admired is a 1951 concert performance of the Brahms Concerto No.2 with Hess accompanied by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Bruno Walter. This is a work that Hess did not record officially — in fact, the only concertos she recorded were the Schumann (twice), Mozart’s 21st (unreleased during her lifetime), and Franck’s Symphonic Variations — but fortunately there are many concert recordings of her in many concertos by several composers.

While we would expect nothing less than a musically intelligent performance from Hess, the big-scale playing we hear in this live recording is astounding. Two weeks before her 61st birthday, Hess tears through the work with a full-bodied sonority, clear textures (that resonant bass!), and beautifully sculpted lines. What an incredibly powerful and emotional reading!

In contrast to this fiery Brahms, here is the pianist’s final public appearance: an October 1961 performance at the Royal Festival Hall of Mozart’s A Major Concerto K.488 with Sir Adrian Boult on the podium. On this occasion, Hess used additions in the Adagio that had been crafted by Denis Matthews (soloists in Mozart’s time had been expected to fill in the blanks left by large intervals) and the result is an interpretation of exceptional beauty — an incredible final concert by one of the heroines of the keyboard!


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