Isaac Stern and Myra Hess = Violin Sonatas of BRAHMS; SCHUBERT; FERGUSON; BEETHOVEN – Isaac Stern, violin/Myra Hess, p. – Testament

by | Mar 18, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Isaac Stern and Myra Hess = BRAHMS: Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100; SCHUBERT: Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Major, D. 384; FERGUSON:  Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 10; BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96 – Isaac Stern, violin/Myra Hess, piano – Testament SBT 1458, 79:03 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
We have here a restored recital from Usher Hall, Edinburgh 28 August 1960, in which Dame Myra Hess (1890-1965) collaborates with violinist Isaac Stern 1920-2001), the two musicians having met and worked together prior at the Casals Festival, Perpignan in the 1950s. Their work in the 1886 “Thun” Sonata of Brahms sets the tone for amiable and leisurely tempos, a sunny disposition aided by rather more exact intonation from Stern than could be his wont in this period, when he allowed lack of practicing and a palpable degree of schmaltz to corrupt his style. The series of Brahms song quotations–along with Walter’s Prize Song from Die Meistersinger--secures the hearty lyricism of the first movement, and the arpeggios and wide chords from Hess prove roundly attractive. We seem to bask in the composer’s own joy in summer sun and Lake Thun’s promise of romantic dalliance, the musings of the second movement. The last movement brings a plastic sense of closure to the whole, for what the critic Hanslick had termed “a pure triad of uniform, beneficial moods.”
The Schubert Sonata (aka Sonatina) in D benefits from the mutual sympathy these performances exert on behalf of the composer. We recall the Hess applications of her lovely tonal control in the little A Major Sonata, D. 664 and first of the piano trios that she recorded (with d’Aranyi and Cassado) in 1929. Stern, too, alternates a demure chastity with heartfelt passion, and the result waxes lilting and dynamically pliant. The Andante movement looms especially haunting and vocally arresting. The “Biedermeier”-sounding Allegro vivace has our thinking Schubert and violinist brother Ferdinand may have–as do Stern and Hess–wrested much energetic beauty from its carefree charms.
The 1946 Sonata No. 2 by Irish composer Harold Ferguson (1908-1999) proffers an idiomatic work in post-Romantic style, reminiscent of Richard Strauss cross-fertilized by Bloch and Frank Martin. Tonal but occasionally rasping and angularly modal, the first movement achieves some aggressive, dervish-like momentum, the keyboard rather free-wheeling. The coda rather stuns us with its brilliant intensity. The lovely Adagio enjoys a mysterious elusive aura; if it were poetry, it would nod to the Symbolist school of Mallarme and find a voice in Hurd Hatfield’s Dorian Gray. The wicked Allegro vivo combines scherzo and finale in a blistering and clarion series of runs and chords, the mood inflamed and slightly exotic. The last pulsing chords unleash an explosion of audience enthusiasm.
A studied tentative application of trill (and turn) opens the G Major Sonata (1812) of Beethoven, which the Stern-Hess duo had first performed in 1956 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to honor David Mannes. A lyrical introspection dominates the first movement, the Hess right hand trills particularly strong and her broken chords suavely nuanced. The most spiritually lofty of the ten violin sonatas, the work elicits from Stern and Hess an estimable cantabile repose, as if Beethoven could anticipate the elastic phrases of Faure. Some of the harmonic movement–particularly to E-flat Major–proves unexpected but lyrically convincing. The Adagio indeed is set in E-flat Major, exploiting a simple melodic idea that undergoes changes in register and texture, a meditation close in spirit–albeit working through a taut line Stern draws–to the late quartets. E-flat rears its head once more–in the trio of the impish Scherzo, which mocks Classical procedure by having been set in G Minor. Beethoven fashioned the finale to accommodate violinist Pierre Rode–who did not like fast display–as an ambling theme with seven variants and coda. Still, Beethoven incorporates enough changes of tempo to keep Rode–and in this case Stern–alert and active, while Hess has plenty of counterpoint to do so as not to be bored. A true sense of valediction asserts itself as the movement reaches its inevitable conclusion, and the audience bids a fond farewell to a duo who had often touched artistic heights.
— Gary Lemco

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