Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat; Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat (Emperor)

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat; Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat (Emperor)
PERFORMER: Myra Hess (piano); BBC SO/Malcolm Sargent
Myra Hess made relatively few concerto records commercially and none of the Beethoven concertos. True, there was an LP of her account of the Fourth with Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra on the Canadian Rococo label and a recent CD of the Third from 1946 with Toscanini and the NBC. The present performances derive from Royal Albert Hall broadcasts, the Emperor from 1957 and the B flat from 1960. The first movement of the Emperor is leonine in its grandeur and power, and its slow movement has all the inwardness and poetic feeling for which this most thoughtful of artists was renowned. Though earlier in date, it is by far the better of the two recordings. The B flat is not only more opaque but has the more limited frequency range and tutti suffer from distortion (just try the opening of the finale) that it is surprising to encounter on a BBC mastertape. (It is much inferior to the 1955 Beecham Sibelius recordings reviewed last month.) But given the quality of the playing, this is a secondary consideration. Hess, who was 70 at the time, plays with all the youthful spirit and elegance she commanded in her prime. Jeremy Siepmann sums it up perfectly in his excellent note: ‘in addition to a simplicity and serenity’ – and I would add wisdom – ‘given to few, she had an element of toughness and an exuberant energy’ which are heard to good effect here. This issue greatly enriches the legacy we have from her commercial discs. Robert Layton