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Few pianists have endeared themselves to their public more profoundly than Dame Myra Hess. Listening once more to her legendary 1949 performances taken live from the University of Illinois, the reason for such affection and acclaim is clear. According to Hess’s contemporary Julius Katchen, a performer’s most elusive task is the fluent communication of emotion to an audience – something Hess had to a unique degree. Her outward ease and naturalness were, in a sense, deceptive being the product of highly distilled artistry and musicianship. Above all, Hess wished to share directly with the audience, making her a reluctant visitor to the recording studio: ‘When I listen to my recordings,’ she said, ‘I feel I am going to my own funeral.’ In the wonderful Australian pianist Eileen Joyce’s touching words: ‘She played with love, and I think that’s important.’

Hess abandoned her early aplomb in works such as Liszt’s first, Saint-Saëns’ fourth and Rachmaninov’s second concertos to focus on music that, to quote Schnabel, ‘is always greater than it can be played’. Rarely can Bach have been given with greater warmth and humanity, whether in the fourth Partita or in her joyous encore, the Gigue from the French Suite No 5. She was, as her pupil Stephen Kovacevich described her, ‘a virtuoso in sound’. Her range, though, was comprehensive, allowing her to take Chopin’s F minor Fantasie by storm. Here, her sense of romantic turbulence is countered by a B major central section that is the truest oasis of calm. Strong and purposeful in Schubert’s B-flat Sonata, she forges ahead yet never misses the undertow of melancholy and desolation – an all-pervading sense of ‘time’s winged chariot hurrying near’ (Schubert died two months after the completion of this masterpiece).

Abnormally slow tempi and pseudo-profundity are not for Hess. She banishes displays of false sophistication that can beset less experienced pianists, overanxious to make their mark. In her selection of Schubert’s German Dances, the term ‘sprung-rhythm’ might have been invented for her if the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins had not thought of it first; and in Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata (the Adagio sadly incomplete), she can make even the great Sviatoslav Richter seem monochrome and metronomic in comparison. Her Mozart Concerto No 9 (Jeunhomme) is graced with cadenzas by Denis Matthews, and in the tragic Andantino, her unadorned eloquence is deeply moving.

Encores include some air-spun Scarlatti and a Chopin Waltz (No 1 in E-flat), as buoyant and elegant as you could wish, providing yet more evidence that Hess, like her dear friend Benno Moiseiwitsch, disliked speed unrelated to musical content or performances devoid of musical interest or commitment.

This album is a reminder and a remembrance of one of those rare artist (one thinks of Menuhin, Furtwangler and Casals) who leave an indelible imprint, a voice and sound recalled, to borrow from Wordsworth, ‘long after it was heard no more’.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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