Hess began piano lessons at the age of five and by the time she was eight was the youngest child to gain a certificate from Trinity College of Music. The following year her father insisted that she perform publicly to earn money, although she continued her studies at the Guildhall School of Music with Julian Pascal and Orlando Morgan. During her time at Guildhall, Hess won the Steinway Medal and the Ada Lewis Scholarship. A year later, at the age of thirteen, Hess went to the Royal Academy of Music in London where she studied with Tobias Matthay who was a great influence on her life and pianism. She graduated with the MacFarren Gold Medal and became Matthay’s first assistant at his newly opened Tobias Matthay Piano School in London.
At her London debut Hess played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 Op. 58 and Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 4 Op. 44 in a concert at the Queen’s Hall conducted by Thomas Beecham. Unfortunately this self-promoted concert did not lead to further engagements, so Hess organised two recitals at Aeolian Hall in January and February of 1908. However, at the end of the year Hess played at the first of her many Prom concert appearances. She played the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Liszt with Henry Wood and in future years returned to give over ninety more Promenade concerts. Further engagements followed, in partnerships with musicians such as Joseph Szigeti, Fritz Kreisler, Nellie Melba and Lotte Lehmann, and Hess also gave two-piano performances with her friend Irene Scharrer. However it was her orchestral debut in Holland, where she played the Schumann Piano Concerto Op. 54 with Willem Mengelberg, that kick-started Hess’s career: even with the interruption of World War I, by the end of that decade she was giving around one hundred concerts a year in Britain and Europe.
In the early 1920s Hess became a favourite in America, her formal debut at Aeolian Hall in New York on 17 January 1922 drawing only a very small audience but extremely favourable reviews, and she thereafter regularly toured America and Canada. In January 1924, when she returned to England after an American tour, she gave a recital at the Wigmore Hall that included the Sonata in F sharp minor by Arnold Bax. During the 1920s in London she also gave concerts with violinist Jelly d’Arányi and two-piano recitals with Harold Samuel where they played Schubert’s F minor Fantasie and some movements from Rachmaninov’s Suite No. 2 Op. 17. They also played a two-piano concert at the Queen’s Hall with an orchestra conducted by Adrian Boult, and Hess played a concert of Bach concertos at the Wigmore Hall with the strings of the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra conducted by Henry Wood. By the end of the 1920s Hess’s programmes had become what they would remain for the rest of her career. She tended to programme a small number of large works, usually by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann or Schubert. She did, however, programme Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B flat minor Op. 35, Brahms’s Piano Sonata in F minor Op. 5 and Ravel’s Ondine and Alborada del grazioso in the 1920s.
During World War II Hess initiated her very successful Lunchtime Concerts at the National Gallery in London, with the primary purpose of presenting music to uplift the spirits of a general public then living through the privations of wartime. Hess appeared in no less than 146 of the 1698 concerts given over six and a half years. For her efforts during wartime, Hess was made a Dame of the British Empire (DBE), having been already made a CBE in 1936. In 1942 she received the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society.
In the decade after World War II Hess usually made one tour of America and one of Holland per year and during this period gave fourteen concerts in Carnegie Hall. In the early 1950s she took part in Pablo Casals’s Prades Festival and from 1956 was a regular performer at the Edinburgh Festival. In 1960 a heart attack signalled the beginning of a decline in her health and in her last years she suffered from arthritis, heart failure and, most undeservedly, acute depression. She gave her last public performance in October 1961 when she played Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K. 488 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir Adrian Boult.
Hess was not fond of the recording studio, and her first recordings were made as part of a chamber ensemble. In December 1927 whilst in America she recorded Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1 in B flat D. 898 with her friends violinist Jelly d’Arányi and cellist Felix Salmond. This was recorded by Columbia for the Schubert centenary year and some days later in January 1928 Hess made her first solo commercial recordings. From the American Columbia sessions of January and February 1928 and April 1929 come a glorious Schubert Sonata in A major D. 664 plus many short pieces by Bach, Scarlatti, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann and Mendelssohn. Of note are the short works Hess recorded by Ravel and Debussy, later dropped from her repertoire, and those by Griffes and Falla. Another chamber recording was made in 1935 of Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C Op. 87, again with d’Arányi, but the cellist this time was Gaspar Cassadó joining Hess and d’Arányi as part of the New Trio Ensemble.
During World War II Hess recorded for HMV, the major works being Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9 and five of Brahms’s late piano pieces. Also at these sessions Hess recorded some British music: the Piano Sonata in F minor by Howard Ferguson and two pieces by her teacher Tobias Matthay. Hess was always linked in the public’s mind with her National Gallery Concerts and the work she did on behalf of the war effort, and forever linked also with Bach’s Jesu, joy of man’s desiring, an arrangement she made for solo piano in 1920. It was published in 1926 and Hess made her first recording of it in 1928 for American Columbia, recording it again for HMV in 1940 and 1957.
After the wartime HMV recordings Hess remained with HMV, recording for them through the 1940s and 1950s. With orchestra, she recorded Schumann’s Piano Concerto Op. 54 in the 78 and LP era, and César Franck’s Variations Symphoniques. Hess’s best recordings from the LP era include Schumann’s Études Symphoniques and Beethoven’s Sonatas Opp. 109 and 110.
In the mid 1950s Hess made another chamber music recording for American Columbia, the Piano Quintet in E flat Op. 44 by Schumann, with a quartet comprising Isaac Stern, Alexander Schneider, Milton Thomas and Paul Tortelier.
Many live performances have survived and been issued on compact disc. A four-disc set on the Music & Arts label includes performances of concertos by Beethoven and Mozart, plus Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 83 conducted by Bruno Walter. Live recordings of concerts given at the University of Illinois have been issued on three compact discs by APR and include performances of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat D. 960, Chopin’s Fantaisie in F minor Op. 49, Bach’s Partita No. 4 in D major and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in D minor Op. 31 No. 2. IMG/BBC Legends have released performances of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos Nos 2, 4 and 5 from the late 1950s and early 1960s; but to date, there still remain unissued BBC recordings of Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor Op. 34 with the Griller Quartet (from a live National Gallery Concert in 1942), Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 recorded in May 1938 with the BBC Empire Orchestra, and Bach’s English Suite No. 2 from 1956.
Hess was one of those pianists who loved simply to play the piano and share wonderful music. This is apparent in her playing which is often joyful and exuberant, with a certain humour lying not too far under the surface. She believed that great music provided spiritual nourishment for mankind, and it was this belief that led her to instigate her highly successful National Gallery Concerts which were attended by over 800,000 people.
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