Bruce Hungerford: The Last Recital = MOZART: Sonata in A Major, K. 331; March in C Major, K. 408; SCHUBERT: Waltzes and Laendler; Impromptu in A-flat Major, D. 935, No. 2; BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 5 in c minor, Op. 10, No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 32 in c minor, Op. 111; BACH (arr. Hess): Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring – Bruce Hungerford, piano – KASP Records 57761, (2 CDs) 55:33, 36:57 *****:
In 2013, producer Donald Isler brought the 29 July 1965 all-Beethoven recital in Bayreuth, Germany given by Australian piano virtuoso Bruce Hungerford (1922-1977) on the KASP label. Hungerford and members of his family suffered a collision with a drunk driver and died from the accident, a needless, criminal loss to music. Now, we have the rare privilege of auditioning Hungerford’s last solo recital, 8 December 1976, from the University Theatre of the University of Calgary.
Sober, intelligent, lithely architectural are the first epithets that arise in hearing Hungerford perform, especially the opening Mozart Sonata in A Major, whose music-box sonority and clean, crisply articulated runs impress us with their interior clarity. Doubtless, much of the Hungerford resonance and sense of the breathed phrase derive from his long association with his master teacher Carl Friedberg. But the explosive capacities in Hungerford’s playing we must ascribe to his own volcanic temperament, which exhibits as much control as it does velocity. The audience expresses its approval directly after the opening Andante grazioso. The strength and color flexibility in Hungerford’s Menuetto more than once invoke a favorable comparison to the British virtuoso Solomon for graduated definition of line. The effervescent Rondo alla Turca dances in rounded, dynamically adjusted figures, a cortege of Janissary colors amidst bagpipes and drums.
The Schubert collections of laendler, German dances, and waltzes provide an inexhaustible source of pure Viennese spirit, as seamless in transition as they are lilted in refined melody. Their relatively simplicity does not belie the sophistication and genuinely ardent level of Hungerford’s rendition, which bears easy comparison to those more familiar readings by Kraus, Demus, Brendel, and Badura-Skoda. We can inject Hungerford into any vision of a Schubertiad we care to make. His having just played the sassy Mozart March in C as a prelude to these pearly strings of Vienna wisdom only confirms Hungerford’s innate penchant for the style.
Hungerford then proceeds into his certified field of expertise, Beethoven – he had been actively engaged in recording a complete sonata cycle for Vanguard when he died – with two c minor opera. The 1796
Op. 10, No. 1 opens with a rather ferocious gesture in dotted rhythm, which finds an immediate counter in a lyrical idea that Beethoven chooses to develop in spite of the urgency of the first motif and its tempests. Ironically, the second theme reveals that it but transforms much of the first idea into the major mode. Even the agitated Alberto bass figures from Hungerford retain a dramatic insistence. Hungerford draws an intimate circle around the central Adagio molto, a rondo interrupted by ornamental episodes that nod to Haydn and to the “expressive” school of C.P.E. Bach. The wide leaps and energetic scales of the last movement, Prestissimo, permit Hungerford to savor his own fleet bravura, a display of propulsion and muscular verve.
The Op. 111 instantly confronts us with Hungerford’s secure authority in this piece, realized as a supreme exercise in will. The momentum of the Maestoso’s having been established, it assumes a fierce and contrapuntal character, in which even its moments of repose seem like cool mirages in the midst of a wind-swept lake of fire. The ensuing Arietta, naturally, provides a virtual labyrinth of affects, rhythmic or melodic germs whose capacity to explode confirms the eternal Beethoven alchemy of converting apparent dross into gold. Hungerford maintains the various threads and tensions in his hands as one evolving arch or panorama, a dialectical monism, if you will. The spectacular leaps and onrush of expansive or minutely compressed emotions – some gorgeously evocative of Beethoven’s Aeolian harp effects – all emerge from Hungerford with a sustained force, a unity of flexion quite remarkable.
Hungerford adds two lyrical encores to this monumental concert, certainly never meant to be his last. The Schubert theme and variations in B-flat proceed as a steady progression of lyric permutations, thoughtful and lovingly etched. The exquisite chorale from Bach’s Cantata No. 147, as arranged by Myra Hess, commands in this context, the same lachrymose awe we attribute to a similar, last-recital document from Dinu Lipatti.
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