BBC Legends BBCL 4201-2 75:34 (Distrib. Koch) ****:
The legendary Myra Hess (1890-1965) brings considerable magic to her music of choice in these inscriptions from the BBC studios, made over the course of twelve years: 1950 (Schumann) to 1962 (Haydn). The Haydn Sonata (3 January 1962) is among the last items Hess played after a debilitating stroke which soon demanded her retirement. A pupil of Tobias Matthay, Hess cultivated a free-flowing singing line, and her Bach (rec. 1956) is nothing if not eminently vocal in character. Her shaping of the Courante and Sarabande from the A Minor English Suite proves typical of her innate balance of poetry and drama. Never the ultimate perfection-machine at the keyboard, Hess nevertheless achieved a natural beauty of tone and idiomatic persuasiveness in everything she touched. The Bourrees move ardently, flexible and light-footed, though without the typewriter or pneumatic hammer effect Glenn Gould coaxed out of the piano. The Gigue thoroughly enjoys its peasant’s capacity for frolic, even in the throes of the most lavish and inventive polyphony.
Despite persistent tape hiss and some crackle, the Schumann Carnaval (13 October 1950) enjoys a degree of bravura the Bach and Haydn downplay. Schumann was always dear to Hess, and someone needs to restore her Piano Quintet from the Casals Festival that appeared on a commercial CBS LP (ML 4711). The rendition has sweetness and drive, touched everywhere by Schumann’s intimacy and sincere, direct expressiveness. The Haydn inscription, the last of the Hess legacy, had to be “spliced together and patched up like a jigsaw puzzle,” according to the pianist’s niece. Still, there are moments of musical serenity and poetic security such as only Hess could communicate in her natural manner. The second subject of the opening Allegro moderato is a case in point, with its lovely attention to the vertical movement of the harmony that requires a subtle shift in rhythmic pulse. The probing character of the Adagio hints at what Hess might have done in Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, if only we had a pristine performance by her. Alternately recitativo or arioso-style, the movement moves without drag. Let the Finale: Presto movement stand as a pointed eulogy for Hess, a quicksilver, happy moment of loving wit in music, charming and decidedly amiable in spirit.
— Gary Lemco