This is an easily overlooked but beautiful recording, featuring a celebrated duo who never made any recordings together. Dame Myra Hess and Isaac Stern met at the Casals Festival in 1951, and although both were regulars at that celebrated event, they didn't immediately gravitate to each other. They appeared sporadically beginning in 1956 and ending with this recital, broadcast by the BBC from the Edinburgh Festival in the summer of 1960. That was the end of a striking partnership -- both held the other in very high regard by the end -- after Hess suffered a serious heart attack in October of 1960.
We are lucky that the program included such notably fine music:
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 10 in G major, Op. 96
Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100
Ferguson, H: Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 10
Schubert: Sonatina in D major, D. 384 (Op. posth. 137 No. 1)
The style of music-making is fresh and instinctive, generally free in phrasing, and mutual, in that the piano is equal to the violin. Stern recognized the value of having a full-fledged pianist as accompanist and gave special tribute to Hess; I think he also toned down his attacks to match her gentler style. (At the time the violinist was forty, the pianist seventy.) The Brahms A major sonata, the most pastoral of the composer's three, is like one ling lyrical line here, springy in its rhythms when required but not attacked full force. Balances are hard to judge, because it sounds as if both instruments have their own microphone, and the acoustic space is fairly dry and flat. Those small drawbacks aside, the heartfelt manner in which the Brahms is played has an old-fashioned scent.
I can't say that I came away with much from Schubert's modestly graceful Sonatina in D, although the melancholy theme of the Andante must be the reason it survives. Hess and Stern are undoubtedly stylish in a low-key way, impeccably phrasing music that on the surface at least is often guilelessly simple. The pianist had taken up the music of English composer and musicologist Howard Ferguson (1908-1999), so I suppose she instigated the inclusion here of his Violin Sonata no. 2, which sounds like generic, conservatively modern in the vein of watered down Bloch or Hindemith. If it's a cut above academic output, the sonata woes much to the prestigious performers and to a whiff of quasi-gypsy melody. It takes too long to wander to a conclusion for me to remain interested.
Last is Beethoven's final violin sonata, no. 10 in G major, Op. 96, which doesn't rival either the "Spring" or "Kreutzer" sonatas in fame, and its subdued effect is due in part to the composer feeling hindered -- the violinist who was to perform it disliked "rushing and resounding passages," as Beethoven wrote to his great patron, Archduke Rudolf. But without the technical bravura of the Kreutzer and a notable tendency toward the lyrical and away form the heroic, this sonata is a work of enough substance that Hess and Stern are able to weave a spell -- a rather more gentle one than we'd get from, say, Martha Argerich and Gidon Kremer. A shared sense of relaxed mastery pervades the performance, a surprise to anyone who identifies Stern with a more assertive style.
In all, I'd say that this is a connoisseur's album, especially on this side of the Atlantic where Myra Hess has nothing like the legendary status she enjoys in Britain.