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!
Conclusion: Unveiling the Multifaceted Artistry of Dame Myra Hess
Dame Myra Hess, a beacon of musicality in her era, continues to captivate the hearts of audiences, primarily celebrated for her lunchtime concerts during World War II and her enchanting renditions of classical masterpieces. However, her recorded legacy, though cherished, only scratches the surface of her vast capabilities as a pianist. As we delve into the wealth of concert and broadcast performances that extend beyond the confines of her limited discography, a more comprehensive portrait of Hess’s inspired pianism emerges.
Born in 1890, Hess’s career unfolded amidst significant technological advancements in recording, offering us a unique timeline of her artistic evolution. Early recordings, such as the 1928 performances of Debussy, unveil a Hess not commonly associated with certain composers, demonstrating her versatility in navigating diverse musical landscapes with ravishing colors and exquisite tones.
Hess’s aversion to recording technology, as candidly expressed in her disdain for machines, adds an intriguing layer to her legacy. Despite her reservations, her recordings stand as enduring gems of the gramophone, appreciated by generations. The paradox of an artist disliking her own recorded legacy, yet contributing to the glories of the medium, underscores the complexity of her relationship with technology.
Beyond the recordings, Hess’s live performances showcase a spectrum of her artistry. A 1949 concert recording of Chopin’s Fantasy in F Minor reveals a tempestuous side to her playing, challenging the prevailing perception of her as a gentle interpreter. The intensity and emotional depth displayed in this rendition align more with the fiery performances of her contemporaries.
The monumental 1951 concert performance of Brahms’s Concerto No.2 further expands the narrative, showcasing Hess’s prowess in big-scale playing. In this live recording, she navigates the concerto with an impressive combination of musical intelligence, full-bodied sonority, and emotional depth, challenging any preconceived notions about her interpretative range.
The exploration concludes with Hess’s final public appearance in 1961, featuring Mozart’s A Major Concerto. Collaborating with Sir Adrian Boult, she delivers a rendition of exceptional beauty, incorporating additions by Denis Matthews and providing a fitting conclusion to her illustrious career.
In essence, Dame Myra Hess emerges as a pianistic virtuoso with a multifaceted artistry that extends beyond the confines of her well-known recordings. Her legacy, enriched by the exploration of concert performances spanning diverse repertoire, invites a reevaluation of her contributions to the piano world. As we peel back the layers of her musical journey, we uncover a Dame Myra Hess whose brilliance transcends the boundaries of time, leaving an indelible mark on the tapestry of classical music.