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Myra Hess: the best recordings of the British pianist famed for her wartime concerts

Despite supposedly not liking any of her own recordings, Myra Hess has a discography well worth exploring. We picked out some of the highlights from her collection

Published: January 28, 2022 at 1:53 pm

Pianist Myra Hess garnered fame during the Second World War, when she organised nearly 2000 lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery – starting during the period of the Blitz. They continued for many years every week, from Monday to Friday, with Hess playing in many of them.

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In later life, Myra Hess professed not to like her own recordings (like many other artists she detested the process). ‘They bore me to death,’ she said, admitting that if she heard one being played on the radio she ‘quite liked bits of Carnaval and Beethoven’s Op. 109’.

These are, indeed, special highlights of her discography. Others include Beethoven’s Op. 110 Sonata, Franck’s Variations symphoniques (with Basil Cameron) and Schumann’s Études symphoniques. The latter was a favourite of Myra’s teacher Tobias Matthay, who noted that the work had been dedicated to William Sterndale Bennett, his first composition teacher.

Among the shorter works are some delicious Scarlatti sonatas and late Brahms, Rudolph Ganz’s transcription of Schubert’s Rosamunde ballet music, Jesu, joy of course and – among the works she recorded at her last session in 1957 – a superb account of Granados’s The Maiden and the Nightingale.

Some of Hess’s admirers think she is heard at her best in live performances, such as those from the University of Illinois in 1949 and broadcasts from 1937 in a three-disc set.

Live Recordings from the University of Illinois
Myra Hess (piano), University of Illinois Sinfonietta/John M Kuypers, Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Victor Kolar (APR7306)

But it is her studio discs that present a treasure trove of varied repertoire and where a generous spirit, a delight in music-making and the warm, singing tone common to all Matthay pupils are always much in evidence. Her complete solo and concerto studio recordings (1928-57) are available in a five-CD set.

Myra Hess: Complete Solo and Concerto Studio Recordings
Myra Hess (piano) (APR7504)

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Find out more about Myra Hess's wartime lunchtime concerts here.

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