About this Recording
8.110604 - SCHUMANN, R.: Piano Concerto, Op. 54 / Carnaval (Hess) (1937-1938)



The Complete Pre-war Schumann Recordings

Piano Concerto

Carnaval, Op. 9


You probably would not expect an eighteen-year old to write an erudite treatise, confidently titled How to Play Beethoven, but Myra Hess (1890 -1965) did just that, showing a single-mindedness that never deserted her. She shared her birth date – 25th February – with luminaries such as Caruso, Goldoni and Renoir, and she shared her professional life with some of the most illustrious musicians of the twentieth century .There are not many who could own up to working with the likes of Ernest Ansermet, Pablo Casals, Adrian Boult, Jelly d' Aranyi, Emanuel Feuermann, Serge Koussevitsky, Willem Mengelberg, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Isaac Stern, Leopold Stokowski, Arturo Toscanini and Bruno Walter. But the list began with Thomas Beecham whom Hess herself had hired for her debut in London (where she was born) in 1907. He was only eleven years older but made no bones about his dislike for women pianists. Nevertheless, Hess's playing of the fourth concertos of Beethoven and Saint-Saens that evening must have impressed Beecham. And we have to assume that she forgave him his bad manners; because nine years later, in 1916, Hess accepted the invitation of Sir Thomas Beecham (he had been knighted in the New Year) to play the Schumann concerto at his concert on 13'"March sponsored by the Royal Philharmonic Society.


The work was not new to Hess. She had played it for the first time on 10th February 1912 - at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam with Mengelberg - and this event may well have been the beginning of her lifelong interest in the concerto. She scheduled it at various times - in New York, again with Mengelberg, in Philadelphia for her initial appearance in that city, and she selected the first movement only for her American radio debut (1935) on the General Motors hour with Boult In fact, he conducted the work for her on ten occasions including her last concert at the Queens Hall, London shortly before it was destroyed in an air raid in 1941 It probably is not an exaggeration to say that this was the one composition of Schumann that Hess was most drawn to and she made two studio recordings, the first with Walter Goehr, offered here, and the second with Rudolf Schwarz in 1954. This in itself may be an indication of her love for the piece because Hess in maturity loathed recording, to the point of being terrified by the whole process.


Her first recordings were for American Columbia (now Sony), which is not as strange as it may seem. She was an instant hit in the United States after her January 1922 debut in New York was critically acclaimed. Schumann's Papillons featured in the programme but not among the 21 solo works she recorded between 1928 and 1931. Vogel als Prophet was preferred and though she continued to play Papillons, it was never recorded. Neither was Bunte Blatter, nor the Andante and Variations for two pianos (in its original version without two cellos and horn), both of which were played at the famous National Gallery concerts in London during the war when the second pianist was Adelina de Lara, a pupil of Clara Schumann 'Studio fright' however did not prevent Hess from recording Carnaval in 1938 and Etudes Symphoniques in 1954 though without the five posthumous variations which, at the time, weren't often played.


"It makes me feel like going home to really study music," said Hess to a journalist in 1951, inspired as she was by discussions and rehearsals with Casals at his summer festival at Perpignan. She was invited to participate the following year too when the event was transferred to Prades where American Columbia recorded a performance of the Piano Quintet, her partners being Isaac Stern, Alexander Schneider, Milton Thomas and Paul Tortelier. It is thought that other recordings - of a BBC broadcast of Carnaval (October 1950) and public performances of the concerto, with Mitropoulos (February 1952) and Sargent (September 1958) - exist but unless they, or others, come to light, this is the sum total of Hess's recorded interpretations of Schumann.


How would we rate them today? In an age when it is common, even fashionable, to debunk once-famous figures, it may be tempting to dismiss them as rather mild. Certainly, the performances lack the impulsive theatricality of near-contemporaries, Alfred Cortot or Walter Gieseking, but they are compassionate and almost vocally expressive Hess emphasised the poetry inherent in Schumann's compositions but glossed over their idiosyncratic wildness. It was not owing to physical limitations. She had technique a-plenty. A film clip of the first movement of Beethoven's Appassionata sonata (from a National Gallery concert and an 'unauthorised' issue of Brahms's Second Concerto with Walter, show that Hess was never awed by the leonine in music The clue to her approach to Schumann may, therefore, lie first with Mengelberg, who in 1912 complained "Her tempo is far too fast" and then later in her friendship with Adelina de Lara who carried a torch for Clara Schumann's precepts about Robert's music In a revealing chapter in her autobiography, de Lara speaks of Clara as saying, "Why hurry over beautiful things, why not linger and enjoy them" and, as an illustration, uses the first number of Kreisleriana. For de Lara, "its lovely phrases go for nothing if played too quickly and here Clara Schumann, again referring to the orchestral quality of the music, told us to listen to the violas and cellos in the second subject, to dream over it and remain very calm while bringing out all the notes fully in each hand" But the first number is marked ausserst bewegt (extremely agitated) because Kreisleriana is a portrait of a lunatic with immoderate frames of mind, and it is dedicated to Clara. She was far from pleased with the work "You shock me sometimes," she wrote, "I wonder if it is true that this man will be my husband?"


Schumann had a mental illness. The late Dr Peter Ostwald, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, diagnosed the condition as "a major affective disorder" that manifested itself in severe mood- fluctuations, delusions, hallucinations and inner voices Robert's suicide attempt and subsequent voluntary hospitalisation, turned what was originally a private family problem into a matter for public interest, and the degree to which Clara also suffered from these circumstances is probably unimaginable. Nor do we know what emotions prevented her from visiting him at the asylum in Endenich during his 28-month stay. The medical records, kept by his doctor Franz Richarz and once thought lost, surfaced in 1994 and are said to disclose an appalling account of his descent into degradation, the final stage of which Clara saw when she eventually stood at Robert's bedside two days before he died Consequently, she can hardly be blamed for wanting to protect his reputation by expunging his music of all intimations of madness She could not change the notes (though de Lara has admitted to doing so herself in some pieces) but she could influence their interpretation through her teaching. And it would seem that Myra Hess too was influenced by the potency of received wisdom. Her view of Schumann may be one-sided but let us not ignore how inimitably she illuminated that particular side.


Nalen Anthoni

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