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Mark Hambourg (piano)
Encores & Rarities: A selection of his HMV recordings
rec. 1910-1935, venues not given
APR 6023 [2CDs: 155:03]

Noting in the publicity sheet that accompanies this release that ‘he has been ill served on historical reissues’ – which begs a few questions, principally which reissues in particular? – APR adds to its own roster of Mark Hambourg’s discs with a twofer devoted largely to early music, contemporary and rare encore pieces.
He was, for the time, a prolific recording artist beginning his long sequence of discs in late 1909 and ending a quarter of a century later in 1935. He had steadily been going out of fashion. Things weren’t helped by the fact that like his fellow Russian-born, British-domiciled pianist Benno Moisewitsch he recorded for HMV’s black (later plum) domestic label.

Given the wealth of material available the selection has been undertaken with fine consideration to the rarer fringes of the repertoire, and not least those cases when Hambourg emerges as a discographic pioneer, which could easily be the case in the days when one could get in first. It’s also fascinating to hear re-recordings of the same piece: he recorded the Scarlatti-Tausig Pastorale and Capriccio, for example – arrangements of Kk9 and Kk20 – over five years apart and as one would expect of a pianist in the Grand Manner, as an unbridled individualist, the performances make for astonishing comparative listening. The earlier 1910 recording is bathed in luxurious array – a silken Persian purring contentedly – whereas in 1915 Hambourg has become stylish, far more disciplined and alert: gone is the ultra-Romanticism. He recorded a sequence of early English music in which John Blow’s Suite in A major is far more convincing than the Fugue in C major but then he turns Couperin’s Les Baricades Mistérieuses into a mere etude as, alas, he does to the Harmonious Blacksmith – who’s rendered unharmonious by Hambourg. The sleeve note writer, the ever-eloquent Jonathan Summers, is very generous to term the performance of the first movement of the Italian Concerto ‘orchestral’. To me it’s barely controlled and shows that even in these areas of his repertoire he could be as unconvincing as on his more familiar discs.

But what an exciting and idiosyncratic performer he was, defying the rectitudinous limitations of the recording studio with utter brio. No one, surely, could find his Bach-d’Albert Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV532 musically convincing but its outsize grandeur and barnstorming excitement are undeniable. As one moves through the first disc one travels from acoustic to electric recordings, such as the 1929 Bach-Tausig Toccata and Fugue in D minor, a recording that allies a truly ravishing sound world with undisciplined conception. His Romantic repertoire includes Schumann, one of Moiseiwitch’s two great loves (the other being Bach) but Aufschwung is too nervous and whilst there are slips in some of these Schumann performances – Träumerei and the Romance in F sharp major – they make a rather better impression. Unfortunately, the 1929 Schubert-Liszt Hark, Hark the Lark sees him barnstorming his way down a stylistic cul-de-sac.

Hambourg made the first (abridged) recording of Debussy’s Danse (Tarantelle styrienne): a decidedly nonchalant reading. He sounds rushed in La plus que lente which was the ‘flip side’ of the Danse and made in April 1920. But the early electric recording of La cathédrale engloutie is more sympathetic and his technique is tested but not cowed by the crunching demands of Ondine, the only piece, albeit once more abridged, that he recorded from Gaspard. His chording in Poulenc’s Novelette No.1 – adventurous repertoire for July 1930 – is ripely done and there is magical colour – he could be an exquisite colourist – in an otherwise too fleet Severac piece, Où l’on entend une vieille boite-à-musique. He gave the first-ever recordings of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G flat major, Op.23 No.10 and of Scriabin’s Etude in C sharp major, Op.8 No.1 and left behind two recordings of Dvořák’s Humoresque in G flat major. The one from 1916 is piquant and coquettish whilst that from 1928 is faster, straighter phrasally but strangely abrupt. They could be by two wholly different pianists. The Gluck-Sgambati Melodie is beautifully done – though I still prefer Egon Petri - but Sgambati’s Vecchio minuetto is dispatched with Vesuvian fire. There are frolics a-plenty when he gets his hands on Grainger’s Country Gardens and it’s good to hear a rare composition by Hambourg himself, the Volkslied. The twofer ends with a piece from his last studio session, a magnetic reading of Anton Rubinstein’s Etude in F major: one of his classic performances. Unreleased from these sessions were pieces by Julius and Erwin Schulhoff, Casella and Bartók. This is all forward-looking repertoire and it would have been fascinating had test pressings survived. But there is the 1925 Ravel Menuet antique, heard in a previously unpublished test pressing of the third take.

This last testament session shows that Hambourg kept up his technique. Subsequent live performances from as much as two decades later seem to support the point too. His individuality and the volcanic scrambles that sometimes afflicted him were by no means ever-present in his recordings. At his greatest he was a superb colourist but in a time when such as Schnabel, Kempff, Edwin Fischer and Arrau were beginning to record, he could not seem anything but anachronistic.

The pleasure for a contemporary listener, unencumbered by the tyrannies of judgement, is that one can scroll through these recordings – which are not presented chronologically and have been presented in generally excellent sound – and listen on a piece-by-piece basis. And if, on occasion, Hambourg was apt to obliterate a piece through his sheer visceral personality, then it was at least the polar opposite of sterility, and always alive - as alive as the dazzle on the sea.

Jonathan Woolf
Previous review: Stephen Greenbank
Track listing
CD 1
1. SCARLATTI/TAUSIG Pastorale and Capriccio
2. BYRD Pavana ‘The Earle of Salisbury’
3. BULL The King’s Hunting Jigg
4. BLOW Fugue in C
5. BLOW Suite in A
6. ARNE Sonata No 5 in B flat
7. COUPERIN Le Carillon de Cythère
8. COUPERIN Les Baricades Mistérieuses;
9. SCARLATTI Sonata in G minor ‘The Cat’s Fugue’
10. SCARLATTI/TAUSIG Pastorale and Capriccio
11. BACH Italian Concerto (1st movement)
12. BACH/D’ALBERT Prelude and Fugue in D BWV532
14. HANDEL The harmonious blacksmith
15. SCARLATTI Sonata in A minor K54
16. SCARLATTI Sonata in G K146
17. BACH/TAUSIG Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV565
19. SCHUMANN Aufschwung;
20. SCHUMANN Schlummerlied
21. SCHUMANN Träumerei
22. SCHUMANN Romance in F sharp
23. SCHUMANN Novelette in F major;
24. SCHUBERT/LISZT Hark, Hark the Lark
25. MENDELSSOHN/LISZT On Wings of Song;
26. MENDELSSOHN/LISZT Mendelssohn’s Wedding March and Dance of the Elves

CD 2
1. DEBUSSY Danse
2. DEBUSSY La plus que lente
3. DEBUSSY/BORWICK Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
4. DEBUSSY La cathédrale engloutie
5. DEBUSSY Clair de lune
6. DEBUSSY Jardins sous la pluie
7. RAVEL Ondine
8. RAVEL Menuet antique
9. POULENC Novelette No 1 in C;
10. DE SÉVERAC Où l’on entend une vieille boite-à-musique
11. POLDINI Étude de concert in A Op 19/2;
12. RACHMANINOV Prelude in G flat Op 23/10
13. SCRIABIN Étude in C sharp Op 8/1
14. & 15. DVORÁK Humoresque in G flat (two versions)
16. RIMSKY-KORSAKOV Dance of the Tumblers
17. BACH/SCOTT My heart ever faithful
18. GLUCK/SGAMBATI Melodie from ‘Orfeo’;
19. SGAMBATI Vecchio minuetto
20. MOSZKOWSKI Étude de concert in G flat Op 24/1
21. WOLF-FERRARI Intermezzo No 2;
22. D’ERLANGER Étude concertante No 2
23. GRAINGER Country Gardens
24. HAMBOURG Volkslied
25. RUBINSTEIN Étude in F Op 23/1



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