In its june 1935 issue, the opinionated periodical Etude ranked Myra Hess among the twelve greatest pianists of all time and more recently she was included in the Philips omnibus edition, Great Pianists of the 20th Century. Julia Myra Hess was born in London in June 1890. At the age of seven she was the youngest person ever to receive a certificate from Trinity College. She next studied at the Guildhall School where she was awarded the coveted Gold Medal and then went on to the Royal Academy of Music where she studied with Tobias Matthay, with whom she had been awarded a three-year scholarship, and where she befriended fellow pupil Irene Scharrer. Hess made her debut, aged 17, playing the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto with the 29-year-old, newly knighted Thomas Beecham conducting. She concertized extensively and in 1922 made her debut in the United States, instantly becoming a concertgoers’ favourite as she was in Europe.

01-HessMyra Hess – The complete solo and concerto studio recordings (Appian APR 7504, 5 CDs) presents her once-prized recordings to a new audience. Disc 1, the American Columbia recordings from 1928 to 1931, has 21 selections beginning with her celebrated transcription, Jesu, joy of man’s desiring, that became her signature piece. It was the first and also the last (in 1957) piece she recorded. These early performances are immediately captivating as the music appears to simply emerge, drawing the listener into a private, one-on-one appreciation of the composer. Lots of Bach, Schubert, Schumann and Debussy concluding with, surprisingly, Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance! Here are only some of the highlights of the four other discs: Disc 2 has the four English Columbias from 1933 and the HMVs from 1937–1949 including the 21st Mozart concerto conducted by Leslie Heward (1942). The HMVs from 1937–1949 continue on disc 3 with Schumann’s Carnaval (1938) and the Concerto in A Minor under Walter Goehr (1937), Franck’s Symphonic Variations under Basil Cameron (1941) and Howard Ferguson’s F Minor Sonata (1942). The HMVs from 1952 to 1957 on the last two discs include the Beethoven Sonatas Opp. 109 & 110 (1953), another Schumann A Minor Concerto with Rudolf Schwarz (1952) and his Symphonic Etudes Op.13 (1953). A final session took place on October 12, 1957 that included an inspired performance of Granados’ Maiden and the Nightingale, concluding as mentioned with her Jesu, joy of man’s desiring.

The generous liner notes are typical of Appian, being very readable with ample biographical material, recording dates and original matrix numbers, etc. The transcriptions are exemplary. This set is issued as a commemoration of the artistry of Myra Hess and while not every performance herein is equally praiseworthy, complete means complete; all 397 minutes! Those who revel in and look for the latest, fastest and loudest fingers around must look elsewhere.

Footnotes: by definition, not included is the 1927 Columbia recording of the Schubert Trio D898 with Jelly d’ Arányi and Felix Salmond or the 1935 d’ Arányi and Gaspar Cassadó Brahms Trio, Op.87 that Appian issued on APR7012. At the 1960 Edinburgh Festival she and Isaac Stern played sonatas by Brahms, Schubert, Ferguson and Beethoven that were recorded by the BBC and issued by Testament (SBT1458, 1 CD). There are a few other live performances to be found on Sony, BBC and Music and Arts CDs. Myra Hess died in London in 1965.

02-BarbirolliIn audiophile circles, the reference recording of the Sibelius Symphony No.2 is usually the Sir John Barbirolli 1962 version for Readers Digest now on Testament. A new Barbirolli performance that sweeps the field has appeared on an ICA Classics release of a concert from February 7, 1969 with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra (ICAC5096, 2 CDs). The program opens with an elegant reading of Schubert’s Fourth Symphony followed by Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. The tenor for the Britten is Gerald English whose voice has a texture and timbre different from Peter Pears’ for whom the work was written. Although Decca recorded the definitive version of the work in 1944 with Britten conducting the Boyd Neel Orchestra with Pears and, who else but Dennis Brain as the horn soloist, this version from Cologne is absolutely gorgeous, beautifully nuanced and abetted by the virtuoso horn soloist, Hermann Baumann.

Barbirolli’s reading of the Sibelius is exceptional even by his own high standards. He may have thought, “I’m not holding back any longer ... it’s now or never.” Perhaps not, but it certainly sounds like it. From the confidently measured opening to the closing measures this is a mighty performance from one of the very best orchestras around. In the coda of the Finale Barbirolli unexpectedly broadens the tempo as if to hold back the inevitable. The effect is stunning, a real lump-in-the-throat experience. The recording of all three works is state of the art, crystal clear and dynamic with wide open tuttis. 

03-ShostakovichOne of the less talked about Shostakovich works is the Symphony No.8 Op.65, written in 1943 during World War Two. Of one hour’s duration, on first hearing it may feel to be an enigmatic, sprawling work… the first movement alone lasts nearly 25 minutes. This impression should be dispelled by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky in a live performance from The Royal Festival Hall on October 30, 1983 (LPO 0069). Rozhdestvensky is intuitively in sync with the Shostakovich of the time and is perfectly suited and able to pass it on to the audience and to us, 30 years later. The performance, while rather straightforward, is flavoured with many empathetic moments, but the most arresting surprise is the very long fermata in the percussion a few bars from the end of the third movement. The effect is still chilling after many hearings. As the final movement closes I feared that there would be an outbreak of applause to shatter the tranquility but happily there is none. Perfect!

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