Dame Myra Hess at the National Gallery


Wait a minute, you say… that was way back, during the War, wasn’t it?  Well… Myra Hess has been brought back to (sometimes disconcertingly vivid) life, through the efforts of The Pianola Institute, in the persons of Denis Hall and our dear friend Rex Lawson – presiding modestly over the proceedings in their immaculate white tuxedos.

myra-hess.jpgTonight’s recital took place in the very room where Dame Myra gave her legendary wartime concerts, the octagonal Room 36 under the central dome.  Amazing sense of being in the presence of history – especially as the small but enthusiastic audience included some venerable guests who had known, and even performed with, Myra Hess;  and one grand old lady (we think Carola Grindea?) who persuaded her not to lock up her piano for the duration of the War, but instead to use her talents as a pianist to raise the nation’s spirits (rather than driving an ambulance ‘which other people can do’).   

With their impressive Duo-Art Pianola hooked up to a Steinway grand (the ‘pianola’ being a Black Box with 88 robot fingers pressing down the piano keys, and presumably with some robot toes for the pedals as well), Rex and Denis treated us to a feast of original piano rolls recorded by Myra Hess and her friends and colleagues – including Harold Samuel, Harold Bauer. and Myra Hess’s cousin Irene Scharrer (whose two electrifying Chopin Etudes were the highlight of the evening for me).  Dame Myra herself played Bach, Scarlatti (arr. Dukas!), Debussy and Szymanowski, and half a twee duet by ‘Burgmein’, who turned out to be the Italian publisher Giulio Ricordi hiding behind a pseudonym.

How’s this for synchronicity?  Two nights ago I was writing up Joshua Bell’s recital (see my previous post) and had a rant about Harold Bauer’s ‘rewriting’ of the Schumann violin sonatas.  Lo and behold, tonight we had Harold Bauer ‘in person’ playing a Schumann Novelette introduced by Denis Hall saying that Bauer had published a complete ‘improved’ edition of Schumann’s piano music, which was still worthy of pianists’ attention today.  Hmm.  Still, the playing was impressive.

Overall, the cleaned-up and restored piano rolls were amazing in their realistic reproduction of the original performers.  (It was very odd, sitting round in a circle watching a piano with nobody playing it!  Some late-opening-night National Gallery punters looked very puzzled as they wandered through.  I had a fleeting vision of The Invisible Man playing, and thought at least he could have worn a hat and white gloves…).  There’s still some level of subtlety missing, although I can’t quite put my finger on what it was.  I’d previously thought it must be the inferior sound of the actual pianos the machinery was attached to, but in this case there could be nothing amiss with the big modern Steinway (impeccably tuned, by the way).

As Denis pointed out, by the time of her National Gallery concerts in the 1940s, Dame Myra was rather set in her choice of repertoire;  but in earlier years she had been more adventurous, and had recorded more ‘avant garde’ things on piano rolls in the 1920s.  The other highlight of the programme for me was a pair of Debussy Préludes (Voiles and La Cathédrale engloutie).  Strangely, these were the only recordings in which I noticed that odd quirk of pianists of earlier generations – not playing the two hands quite together.

Generally, I was aware that these piano rolls preserved earlier ways of playing;  even Harold Bauer’s famed Bach playing sounded clunky and uneven, and the performances often seemed slightly garbled in ways that a modern pianist wouldn’t get away with.  But it was a fantastic experience, and a wonderful monument to the talents of Rex and Denis and his associates at the Pianola Institute.

I haven’t done justice to the performances, or to Rex’s expositions of the history and technology of the pianola;  for more information, see their website at http://www.pianola.org/ .  You won’t be disappointed!


picture stolen from bbc.co.uk — thanks!

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4 Comments on “Dame Myra Hess at the National Gallery”

  1. […] besides being THE world expert on pianolas (well, one of two, and Dennis was there too:  we have met them before in these pages…), so this was going to be a treat for Rex as well as for the rest of […]

  2. Paul Groves Says:

    Please note: Myra Hess and Irene Scharrer were NOT cousins. A common error, but an error nerver the less!



  3. Stephen Says:

    I have heard earlier recordings of the piano rolls by Dame Myra and Irene Scharrer. I think the piano rolls captured a moment in time and the development of these two marvelous pianists. I can say that the wartime experience at the National Gallery etc. had a profound affect on Dame Myra’s playing. After that, her playing took on a depth of tone and expression which ulitmately was to be heard in her post war performance of the latter three Beethoven Sonatas. Anyone who heard her in these pieces never forgot the experience. One can get an idea by listening to her recording on 33 1/3 rmp of the Op. 109. For some reason the recording ot that Sonata captured the essence of Dame Myra’s playing after the war.

  4. jonathanburton Says:

    Thanks for that! Most interesting.

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