While contemporary surveys of the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies include luminaries Jorge Bolet, Gyorgy Cziffra, Mischa Dichter, Michele Campanella, and Roberto Szidon, collectors may recall the older traversals by Alexander Brailowsky and the very first set of inscriptions, 1926-1935, by Mark Hamburg (1879-1960). Born in Russia and emigrating to London in 1890, Hambourg found his way to Vienna in 1891 for studies with Theodor Leschetizky, whose master classes produced many of the world’s foremost piano virtuosos. One fellow student, Artur Schnabel, lamented that it was Hambourg who was invariably chosen by Le Maitre to perform demonstration pieces for the master classes. Paderewski called Hambourg the most natural pianist he had ever heard. For the set of Liszt Rhapsodies, Hambourg decided upon on Bluethner piano, an instrument whose tone color was more suited to the quazi-cimbalo effects Liszt preferred than the usual Steinway or Bechstein.
From the opening chords of the 1934 E Major Rhapsody, we are transported into a rarified realm which, while totally immersed in Lisztian rhetoric and gypsy style, is light years away from anything like precision piano playing. Immaculate self-indulgence might serve as the rubric for Hambourg’s performance practice. Eminently singing and nuanced, his playing is an aural equivalent to a Jackson Pollack reaction to a visual stimulus. Splashes of color, vanished bar lines, disregard of dynamic markings, these are merely a few of the licenses offered by this musical character. The last pages of the E Major, for instance, threaten to smash the piano and the recording device! I tried to keep in tempo to his C Sharp Minor (1932) opening pages, but he lost me in smothering appoggiaturas and wild bass harmonies and agogic shifts. This is Charles Ives’s transposition of Liszt into a willful, idiosyncratic world that beguiles me despite myself! Added cadenzas are nothing to Hambourg, as if Liszt needed to be fertilized by Godowsky. The impression of dueling gypsy bands is infectious. Try imitating Hambourg’s non-legato and see how you do!
Hambourg gets his piano to grumble at the opening of the B-flat (1934), then he applies all kinds of pearly runs and sustaining pedal whose modality prefigures Bartok. The trills are as fast as anything I have heard by Levitzky or Barere. The E-flat Major (1932) comes off as an improvisation. Even the balancing of phrases is offset by an idiosyncratic rhythm and rubato. The sixteenth notes, however, are smooth as glass. The E Minor (1934) provides something like Hambourg’s legato phrasing, but it too is swallowed up by harmonic detail and willful stretti. Marked “Heroide-elegiaque,” the piece evokes Hambourg’s magisterial sense of scale. The D-flat (1934), introduced to me by Byron Janis, receives bravura, sweeping treatment by Hambourg, who relishes lightning shifts of color and dynamics and three-hand effects. You get the impression Hambourg would have been perfectly happy playing for silent films.
The D Minor No. 7 (1935) proceeds from a dark turbulence to treble filled with clutter; the middle section rings like an eccentric music-box. Recorded sound is harsh and tinny. The Capriccio No. 8 (1927) is a hectic piece using some materials Brahms employed in Hungarian Dance No. 6. The alternation of rapid staccato and leggierissimo runs guarantees Hambourg’s repute as a master of many colors, all of them flying. The Carnaval at Pesth (1927) emerges as a relatively sober reading–for Hambourg–with clean articulation of the themes, not so buried in Busoni, as it were. Canny pulling back in the tempo makes for some heady drama. The young Gilels liked this brilliant piece, too.
Rhapsody No. 10 in E Major “Praeludio” was recorded by Hambourg in 1929. It is perhaps the most Chopinesque of the rhapsodies; and curiously, Artur Rubinstein favored this rhapsody among the rest of the set. Hambourg’s wrist action in the right hand is evident for its suppleness; he plays this piece in the manner of Feux follets, with slick glissandi matched against powerful staccato octaves. The A Minor No. 11 with Hambourg (1927) has distant sound and some hiss, but it has a diaphanous lightness and quicksilver, breathtaking acceleration. Both Cortot and Kapell loved this rhapsody and made fine recordings of it. Hambourg plays the piece in period, each with rounded cadences. Sonic deterioration is a factor in the inscription of No. 12 in C Sharp Minor (1930), but the playing is strictly in the Grand Style, easily competitive with my favorite renditions by Levitzky and Bachauer. Mannered in phrasing and tempo, the reading has a music box sonority and an elastic brio worth the price of admission. The A Minor No. 13 (1934) is another rival to Levitzky; Hambourg plays with manic desperation, threatening several times to lose control – but he doesn’t. Wicked octaves. The F Minor No. 14 (1933) is the second of Hambourg’s recordings of this work, most often heard in its incarnation for the Hungarian Fantasia. Clean, sober articulation of the main theme after the knotty introduction. Breathless segues between its variants, the piece under Hambourg throbs and surges, then retreats, alla musette, in sparkling colors, an idiosyncratic champagne. Whimsically bold wrist action in the last pages, the zithers and cimbalom in vivid ensemble as the playing tries to tear itself free of the acetates. The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15, the Marche de Rakoczy (1927) derives from the 1851 edition of the score, a version less extended than the 1853 and thus able to fit onto a single shellac side.
The Hambourg set ends with two addenda and the Concerto pathetique (1934) with Hambourg’s daughter, Michal. First, we have alternative takes of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (1926) and No. 14 in F Minor (1929). In crackly sound, the C Sharp Minor still displays Hambourg’s lofty tone and tireless ornamentation. Even his reprise of the opening motif has all sorts of innovations, slides, syncopations, grace notes, and a light, right-hand trill that will not quit. The frisse section is a study in deft dynamic application and graduated acceleration. Hambourg makes it sound like an elfin dance, a variation of Gnomenreigen. The last page would make Gyorgy Cziffra drool with envy. The F Minor communicates a salon intimacy not evident prior in the set. Hambourg’s subtle shifts of accent and dynamics again astonish, the arsenal of a consummate Liszt discipline. He achieves a pppp before the full orchestra of his hands pounds you into grateful submission. The tenor of the Concerto pathetique, with its trills and bird calls, suggests a kinship with the Years of Pilgrimage pieces. The music becomes more tempestuous in the Quasi fantasia section, suggestive of a tonepoem transcription. Some lovely interplay between father and daughter from their respective pianos: they might have rivaled the Schnabels in Schubert had EMI so engaged them. Kudos to engineer Bryan Crimp and the Appian label for a fascinating, often mesmerizing journey into Liszt through an honest virtuoso.
— Gary Lemco