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Hyperion Records

APR7040 - Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsodies

Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Release date: November 2005
Total duration: 121 minutes 46 seconds

Hungarian Rhapsodies
No 1 in E major: Rapsodie hongroise I  [10'22]  recorded 6 December 1934
No 2 in C sharp minor / F sharp major: Rapsodie hongroise II  [7'05]  recorded 30 September 1932
No 3 in B flat major: Rapsodie hongroise III  [4'03]  recorded 3 December 1934
No 4 in E flat major: Rapsodie hongroise IV  [4'20]  recorded 26 April 1932
No 6 in D flat major / B flat major: Rapsodie hongroise VI  [5'51]  recorded 11 December 1934
No 7 in D minor: Rapsodie hongroise VII  [4'33]  recorded 17 January 1935
No 8 in F sharp minor: Rapsodie hongroise VIII  [5'06]  recorded 10 November 1927
No 10 in E major: Rapsodie hongroise X  [4'46]  recorded 31 December 1929
No 11 in A minor / F sharp major: Rapsodie hongroise XI  [4'44]  recorded 11 November 1927
No 13 in A minor: Rapsodie hongroise XIII  [7'22]  recorded 22 March 1934
No 14 in F major: Rapsodie hongroise XIV  [7'01]  recorded 24 July 1933
Rákóczi-Marsch 'version populaire' S244c  [2'47]  recorded 11 November 1929
No 14 in F major: Rapsodie hongroise XIV  [8'33]  recorded 31 January 1929
Allegro energico  [4'09]  recorded 22 March 1934
with Michal Hambourg (piano)
Quasi fantasia – Andante sostenuto  [7'45]  recorded 22 March 1934
with Michal Hambourg (piano)
Andante, quasi marcia funèbre  [3'52]  recorded 22 March 1934
with Michal Hambourg (piano)

The first complete survey on record, reissued for the first time.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
When Mark Hambourg’s first volume of autobiography, From Piano to Forte, was published in 1931 his glory days were nearing their end, though this did not preclude the publication of a second volume in 1951.

He tells his story with considerable modesty: too much so, in truth, as his reader is left unaware of the significance of his contribution to the history of the recorded piano in Britain. Such were Hambourg’s ‘achievements to the gramophone’ that EMI hosted a luncheon at London’s Savoy Hotel in 1934 to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of a recording career which began in 1909 but which was to conclude the following year, save for a solitary 1941 recording made for semi-private purposes. (During the celebrations Hambourg made a recording via a ‘telephone circuit’ relay to the Abbey Road Studios where the resulting record was promptly played back to the suitably impressed guests.) It was ironic that Hambourg was largely dethroned by a contemporary and fellow Leschetizky pupil, formerly suspicious of the gramophone, Artur Schnabel. Coincidentally, there was a change in corporate attitude within EMI: the nurturing of artists of international appeal was given precedence over ‘local’ favourites. Hambourg’s fate as a recording artist was sealed.

But this in no way invalidates Hambourg’s earlier achievements. He had been a true ‘celebrity’—not in the easy-come, quickly-go manner of the word as it is abused today—, acknowledged, particularly in Britain, as ‘the people’s pianist’ and enjoying startling commercial success as a recording artist.

Equally significant, he was much admired by fellow musicians as a pianist of remarkable fluency, of all-encompassing sympathies (not readily apparent from his vast discography which, to a large extent, was determined by ‘popular demand’ and short ‘character’ pieces) and a man of unusual extra-musical interests.

In short he was ‘a character’. In his volumes of autobiography, the critic James Agate writes fondly and tellingly of Hambourg. He portrays a man ‘who is so much the life and soul of every party’ and rails against ‘the people who don’t like Mark; if they played bridge with him they would better understand his piano playing. Mark talks before, during, and after every hand, and when he forces himself to silence, his mind continues to ferment; this is why he has fortissimos and pianissimos, but disdains cantabile.’

Yes, Agate could be critical of his friend’s playing, perhaps never more so than when he heard the pianist give an impromptu recital at the Savage Club and thought that Hambourg played ‘as though he were wearing a crash helmet’—surely an appropriate metaphor for these fearless recordings of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies.

It was Agate, after lunching with Hambourg and Benno Moiseiwitsch (the two pianists were good friends, bridge partners and fellow members of the Savage Club) in January 1935, who first reported that Hambourg had ‘just finished recording all the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies, the idea being to try and popularise the lesser-known or even unknown ones’.

Hambourg’s first Rhapsody recording (No 2) dates from 1926 and merely marked the addition of a popular old war-horse to the domestic catalogue rather than the start of an ambitious cycle. I have not been able to locate any documentation registering The Gramophone Company’s intent to record a complete cycle for HMV, though it would appear that the idea took wing once the Abbey Road Studios opened in 1931—to the extent that Rhapsodies Nos 2 and 14 and the Rákóczy March were subsequently re-recorded in order that all the recordings would be sonically ‘on a par’ with each other. (The later version of the Rákóczy March was never published: the earlier accounts of Nos 2 & 14 appear after the presentation of the complete cycle.)

There is an unsolvable mystery surrounding the December 1934 recording of Rhapsodies Nos 1 & 3. These two records (C 2761 & 2762) were announced for release in July 1935 but all subsequent documentation is marked ‘cancelled’, the catalogue numbers not included in the numerical listing of all records released in 1935 and the metal masters destroyed in November 1936. Additionally, commercial pressings are not held in EMI’s music archives or, it would appear, by any leading European record collector. Surely irrefutable evidence that these records were, for some reason, never published. Yet single copies of both discs have been located in America—complete with commercial labels!—and now reside at the International Piano Library at Maryland, to which APR is indebted for their inclusion in this anthology, together with several other records presented in this programme. Assembling the records for this project, incidentally, was not easy and some copies were regrettably in less than pristine condition. However, it is now possible, seventy years after Hambourg recorded it, to explore the gramophone’s first-ever survey of the then familiar cycle of 15 Hungarian Rhapsodies.

It was during the session of 22 March 1934, at which Hambourg recorded Rhapsody No 13, that he made the premiere recording of Liszt’s Concerto pathétique with his teenaged daughter Michal. (Named after her paternal grandfather, Michal [1919–2004] made her London debut recital in April 1937 at the Grotrian Hall and went on to enjoy only a modest career as a performer though she was much involved in varied musical activities throughout her long life.) The Concerto pathétique was a work for which Mark had an obvious soft spot. Agate recalled several occasions when Hambourg and Moiseiwitsch played the work at the Savage Club: ‘A work never performed. But why must they play loud enough for two Albert Halls?’ Hambourg also performed the piece in concert with Busoni.

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Hambourg’s records to discover that his approach to the Hungarian Rhapsodies is an abandoned, freewheeling one, as far removed from today’s goal of technical perfection as it is possible to be. Indeed, in From Piano to Forte Hambourg takes to task pianists who sacrifice interpretation for accuracy: they ‘are less successful with their records than the more human performers, who endeavour to impart the warmth of their personality to what is reproduced’. In interview he frequently expressed his concern about ‘relentless accuracy’ which, to his ears, produced a ‘cold, unimaginative expression that sounds lifeless and unreal when played back’. Hambourg’s singular approach to the recording process was noted during one playback by his producer Fred Gaisberg who observed that on hearing a fumbled note the pianist smiled and remarked with more than a degree of satisfaction, ‘Good, we are not a machine!’. Certainly there is no doubting the ‘personality’ of these recordings, even if some may decry Hambourg’s ‘freedom’ and others consider his uniquely personal style being beyond the pale. And we should remind ourselves of the esteem in which Hambourg was held by his fellow pianists in an era when personality and individuality meant so much: Paderewski considered him the most natural pianist he had heard, Anton Rubinstein proclaimed him his successor and Busoni’s admiration knew few bounds.

Hambourg’s untameable spirit is evident throughout these vertiginous, always well-intentioned and frequently thrilling interpretations. Here is a fascinating window onto a vanished world. When at his best, bar lines dissolve beneath liquid rubatos and some remarkable gradations of tone and dynamics.

Hambourg’s use of a Blüthner piano for almost all his electrical recordings is particularly apt, the instrument being far more suggestive of the cimbalom—’quazi zimbalo’: Liszt’s marking—than a Steinway or Bechstein.

Hambourg springs a surprise on his listener when it comes to the ‘Rhapsody No 15’. He plays not the Rákóczy March as it appears in the set of Hungarian Rhapsodies published in 1853 but one of several alternative versions of the march, in this instance the Marche de Rákóczy, Edition populaire of 1851. It is also obvious that during the years between recording the first 1927 version of the piece and the 1932 (unpublished, and now lost) rerecording, he underwent no change of heart as to which score was his preferred version: the Rákóczy March in its Hungarian Rhapsody No 15 guise would have required more than a single 12 inch matrix. For their part, HMV sat on the fence and simply labelled the relevant side of C 1439 as ‘Rakoczy March’.

Finally, the briefest of biographies. Mark Hambourg was born in Bogutchar, South Russia on 1 June 1879 into a musical family. His life was that of the archetypal prodigy-turned-adult professional pianist. He attended the Moscow Conservatoire, his father Mikhail’s alma mater, and made his Moscow debut with Mozart’s D minor concerto in 1888. Unrest in Russia brought Hambourg father and son to London, and in July 1890 ‘Max’ Hambourg (he reverted to his correct name once his prodigy years were behind him) began his professional career. The boy’s earnings enabled the rest of the family to leave Russia for the safety of Teddington in Middlesex.

The precocious boy freely mixed with the intelligentsia and political activists of the day, their influence undoubtedly contributing to Hambourg’s metamorphosis into a considerably rounded figure, one of great originality of mind. Concluding his prodigy career in the summer of 1891, Hambourg left for Vienna and studies with Theodor Leschetizky, for whom he developed a great personal fondness. (His tutor’s La source featured in Hambourg’s very first recording session of 4 August 1909 and he later recorded Leschetizky’s Tarantelle though no takes of either piece were ever published.) Artur Schnabel once ruefully told Fred Gaisberg that it was always Hambourg who was declared the most brilliant pupil in his class and who was invariably selected to perform at the weekly students’ concerts.

After Hambourg’s adult debut in Vienna in March 1895 his active career began as it was to continue for the ensuing decades—countless appearances and extended tours, among the first being Australia (1895), the USA (1898) and Russia (1903).

It is said that by mid-June 1906 he had already chalked up his thousandth public appearance. Although his father and brothers subsequently emigrated to Canada, Mark, understandably, remained in England where he was enjoying unprecedented popularity. ‘The people’s pianist’ died a not entirely forgotten figure in Cambridge on 26 August 1960.

Bryan Crimp © 2005

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