Arbiter Records 109

The Hambourg Legacy: Mark and Michal Hambourg

Track List

Mark Hambourg, piano; rec. 1914-1930 track 6: Michal and Mark Hambourg, pianos; rec. 1934 tracks 8-11 Michal Hambourg, piano; rec. 1995

  1. Chopin Andante spianato op. 22 4:34
  2. Beethoven Piano Sonata in A flat, op. 26: I 6:23
  3. Beethoven Piano Sonata in A flat, op. 26: II 2:13
  4. Beethoven Piano Sonata in A flat, op. 26: III 5:31
  5. Beethoven Piano Sonata in A flat, op. 26: IV 2:28
  6. Schumann Andante & Variations for Two Pianos 8:30
  7. Debussy-Borwick Prelude to the afternoon of a faun 6:01
  8. Liszt St. Francis' sermon to the birds. 8:52
  9. Schumann Fantasie op. 17: I 12:19
  10. Schumann Fantasie op. 17: II 8:16
  11. Schumann Fantasie op. 17: III 9:48
  12. bonus download track: Ravel Minuet antique

Vienna, 1907: Ignaz Friedman, then an upcoming twenty-five year-old pianist, sighed to a relative: “Mark Hambourg! Er macht besser!” [He does it better!]. Despite a legacy of nearly two hundred recordings and two vivid, informative autobiographies, Mark Hambourg (1879-1960) has become an enigmatic, forgotten figure. Some of his recordings make one agree with Friedman. Yet Hambourg did not like the studio atmosphere, or specific works selected by his producers: some wayward results have discouraged listeners from seeking Hambourg’s great performances, which place him among the finest artists ever captured on disc. Was it possible to learn how his art developed, whether it was truly represented and its aftermath?

While compiling a Hambourg CD in 1994, it seemed imperative to reissue his performance of Beethoven’s C minor Piano Concerto, as it contained Moscheles’ cadenzas. Equally compelling was a recording of the little known Concerto Pathetique for two pianos by Liszt: joining Hambourg was his 14 year-old daughter Michal. Their collaboration bears a remarkable unity of ensemble and ideas. It is hard to discern who took which part, as both play as equals.

Hambourg lauded Michal in his writings, for she had reached musical maturity under his guidance. Was she still alive, and if so, where? Had she preserved or imparted her family’s musical knowledge and documents? As the Liszt recording dates from 1934, one feared that the Hambourg legacy could have disappeared.

Soon after the disc was published, a letter arrived from Robert MacPhail, stating that he was Mark Hambourg’s grandson, and that his mother Michal Hambourg was alive, well, and in fine pianistic form. In view of the vastness of her family’s background and tradition, she felt she had something special to contribute to the many musical problems of talented children and has spent the last 25 years working in this area as Music Counselor for the National Association for Gifted Children, while continuing her practicing and playing mostly at home. After our first phone conversation, Hambourg offered to play Schumann’s Fantasie in order to demonstrate a work of great importance to their family which Mark Hambourg had not recorded. She permitted her performance to be recorded: Robert MacPhail arranged for a sound engineer to bring recording equipment into her living room and document the Fantasie, a Schubert Impromptu, and two Chopin Nocturnes.

From the very first measure it was evident that her family’s art lived and had been furthered. It is hard to believe that a pianistic tradition originating both in mid-19th century Russia and handed down directly from Beethoven has continued to fully thrive more than 150 years later. Legendary artists such as Nicholas and Anton Rubinstein, Leschetizky, and Debussy are still familiar, living presences: their direct influence on the Hambourg family is attested to in the writings, reminiscences, and playing of Mark and Michal Hambourg. While Michal Hambourg absorbed her father’s style, her own art seems closer to the earlier generation of Pachmann and Rosenthal, yet conveyed with an immediacy that renders it contemporary.

The first professional pianist in their family was Mikhail Hambourg (1855-1916), Mark’s father, a professor at the Moscow Conservatory, who had been a pupil of Nicholas Rubinstein and Taneev. The senior Hambourg and his family hurriedly emigrated to England, possibly to escape retribution from his ties to political anarchists. They later settled in Canada to found the Hambourg Conservatory in Toronto. Two other gifted sons, Jan, a violinist, and Boris, a cellist, had successful international musical careers.

Aside from a technical method he published, little is known of Mikhail’s playing. His ability as a teacher is attested to by pupils such as his son, and Gerald Moore, the late distinguished vocal accompanist. In a preface to his book of technical exercises, Mikhail Hambourg cites his professional and personal contact with Anton and Nicholas Rubinstein. The presence in Russia of the Irish composer John Field may have influenced how Mark Hambourg learned Chopin’s Nocturnes from his father. As Field was not unknown to the older musicians active when Mikhail Hambourg was studying, Mark Hambourg’s playing suggests a link to this vanished practice, as the phrasing and touch in his recordings of several Nocturnes are closer to Field than Chopin.

Mark Hambourg recalled his early lessons with the director of the Moscow Conservatory as ‘a sort of farce’: “What I learned from him was purely nominal! My real teacher during all that time was my father, Professor Michael Hambourg, with whom I learned the whole of the forty-eight Preludes and Fugues of Bach, and ruined my eyesight, but improved my technic and knowledge of music. For there is no grounding, in my opinion, to be compared to the works of Bach, for the young pianist.”

The preparation Mark received from his father was enough to stir Paderewski when he heard the boy play, for Paderewski immediately organized and subsidized a fund to enable Hambourg to study for four years in Vienna under his own teacher Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915). Leschetizky had been trained by Carl Czerny, a pupil of Beethoven; he often shared Czerny’s comments on Beethoven with his students. Hambourg’s years in Vienna were crucial; he remained indebted throughout his life to Leschetizky for having guided him to his fullest artistic potential:

“Of course it was from that great teacher, Leschetizky, that I learned most everything, not only pertaining to piano playing, but in regard to every aspect of how to live. As for a pianoforte lesson with him, it was a life experience, if one was capable of understanding what he wanted; and he had a wonderful way of explaining every detail with the utmost precision and care. He was not only marvelous at developing facility and brilliance of execution in his pupils, but also focused his teaching enormously on the quality of sound produced. Everything had to be beautiful and polished, with him, and alive with the right kind of expression and feeling. He never allowed anything to pass his judgment that was dull, monotonous, or harsh in tone production. He used to urge us to go and listen to the great singers, to see how they phrased and brought out melody and cantilena passages, and to take them as our models in this branch of our studies.”

After a debut in Vienna with Hans Richter, Hambourg became sought after and began years of strenuous touring throughout the world, giving more than 150 concerts a year. His programs drew on an immense repertoire spanning the entire keyboard literature, as Hambourg was fond of works by Bull, Byrd, Purcell, Couperin, and sought out new compositions by Ravel, Falla, and Villa Lobos, often giving their world premieres. During his first visit to Australia in 1895 at age sixteen, Hambourg encountered Edison’s cylinder machine: “I used to make use of it to send pieces played by myself as greetings to my parents instead of writing them letters, which I detested doing.” In Melbourne, Hambourg met Mark Twain, who soon became a friend. When Twain’s daughter, Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch began studying with Leschetizky in Vienna, the writer held court there. Hambourg recalled:

“Mark Twain used to keep open house in Vienna and musicians used to drop in for a meal. They were enormous meals, for artists are always hungry people. One day when I arrived, I heard an extraordinary noise, like a dog howling. I wondered if the animal was in pain and discovered it was Mark Twain singing one of the old Mississippi river songs.”

The twelve year-old Horszowski was studying with Leschetizky in 1904 when Hambourg arrived after a lengthy tour to stay with Leschetizky for ten days, enabling everyone to hear him play daily and at several evening masterclasses, which deeply impressed the young Horszowski.

In 1909 Hambourg produced his first phonograph record, placing him amongst the first generation of artists to document their art. While loath to undergo the recording process, which would start with a ringing bell, Hambourg often conveyed a glimpse of the freedom characterizing his public performances. Even more troubling were the imposed tempo modifications needed to fit a given work within the limits of early discs: his performance of Ravel’s Ondine, the work’s premiere recording, had to be truncated and rushed so as to fit onto a one-sided disc with a maximum playing time of over four minutes. His conception could have been accurately preserved on two 78 rpm sides, yet due to the producer’s instructions, this was not permitted.

At home, Hambourg practiced daily and enjoyed a lively family life with his wife and four daughters. Michal (1919-) was the one among them to continue with serious music studies, guided by her father’s lessons and supervision of her practicing. Following a two-hour afternoon nap, Hambourg would set out for his second home, the Savage Club, where he would meet Benno Moiseiwitsch and other distinguished members for cards. On returning home late for dinner, his wife Dorothea Hambourg would exclaim: “It’s half past nine. How can you expect the cook to stay?’ Hambourg would sigh, “Ah, Dolushka, my watch said 7:30.” Hambourg passed sleepless nights reading Shakespeare, as he suffered from a life-long insomnia. He would often experiment in the kitchen with new recipes and excitedly awaken his wife to have her taste the results.

One of Michal Hambourg’s early musical experiences at the piano was being introduced to all the Beethoven string quartets, playing them in piano four-hands arrangements with her father. She recalls:

“Amongst the great artists who came to the house, my father was most anxious for me to listen to [Moriz] Rosenthal and [Ignaz] Friedman, and took me to all their concerts, as in his view they were the greatest interpreters of Chopin.”

One newspaper reported on a visit by Friedman to the Hambourgs during which the two colleagues played Arensky’s Suite for Two Pianos. Michal Hambourg provides a vivid account of these formative years:

“From my earliest memories, our home was full of music and musicians. As the fortunate possessor of an inherited musical talent, imagine the bliss for me! In the evenings, after dinner, everyone played chamber music and I have only to close my eyes to feel the experience of intense life and energy in that musical scene. Many of the great musicians of those days were my parents’ friends. Busoni, Paderewski, Rubinstein, Huberman, Piatigorsky, Rachmaninoff, Friedman, Moiseiwitsch, and many others all came and made music. They actually had time for me! – very small and aspiring who played Bach and Mozart to them and was showered with advice, criticism and occasionally a word or two of praise. Although they were tremendously critical, time was always made for me to play a trio or a quartet with these kindly but awe-inspiring gods. Those evenings were vibrant with a special kind of conversation, centered around a great tank of inherited musical ideas, many of which were handed down from artist to artist since the time of Beethoven. This cornucopia of ideas is sometimes called the living link and forms the basis of all my own offerings in music. In getting to know the core of great musical masterpieces, those who preceded us had endless experiences to offer us, and we can learn endlessly from their musical concepts.”

One of Michal Hambourg’s teachers was Clarence Lucas, a family friend whom she remembers as “an aged gnome in a homespun brown tweed suit who wrote music. Lucas had been well acquainted with Debussy and had studied with him and knew how the composer played his own piano works.” Lucas taught her composition and shared his knowledge of Debussy with Michal. She recently recorded the Isle Joyeuse for Arbiter, interpreting it as a pagan rite, capturing with her touch the frenzied horns and percussion leading its dancers into a trance state.

When her father embarked on an extended two year world tour, the twelve year-old Michal’s piano lessons were entrusted to Katherine Goodson, a favorite of Leschetizky’s. Goodson, now unjustly forgotten, was a demanding teacher who strictly adhered to Leschetizky’s principles, thus deepening Michal’s contact with her family’s tradition. An illustrated lecture on Leschetizky by Goodson survives, preserved from a radio broadcast. It contains examples of her superb pianism and deserves to be heard again. While listening to the tape, Michal Hambourg noted that Goodson’s remarks were so ingrained in her own training that their musical principles are identical.

In 1932, Hambourg decided that the thirteen year-old Michal was ready to begin her career. She had been assisting her father’s recording sessions since age eight as his page turner, and at Mark’s insistence, making test records, which still exist. To encourage and assist her, both Hambourgs rehearsed works for two pianos and concertised as a duo for more than four years and recorded the Liszt Concerto Pathetique and Schumann’s Andante and Variations. Benno Moiseiwitsch’s daughter Tanya recalled their recitals as having brought out the senior Hambourg’s finest playing. According to Michal Hambourg, “I never cared for the Pathetique, although there is some lovely music in it, but I preferred the Schumann. When we recorded it the wax often went bad and we had to repeat parts. I felt absolutely at one with him.”

The emergence of a new breed of megalomaniacal managers and producers before the Second World War transformed record companies into an industry, which soon made its impact on the Hambourgs. One immediate action resulting from the new administrative style was the termination of Hambourg’s recording contract, despite the success of his discs, and a reduction of his engagements. His final disc, made in 1935, is a masterful performance of two rare compositions by Anton Rubinstein. Hambourg was in good company, as Friedman and Rosenthal were also ‘retired’ by their respective companies. Hambourg toured abroad less yet performed in public into the late 1950’s. A surviving two-minute recorded fragment from a 1957 Proms concert finds Hambourg reaping a thunderous applause with Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasia. Hambourg often practiced Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata (op. 106) during his two years of retirement (1958-60), telling his son-in-law Ian MacPhail: “My boy, I’m hoping to meet my Maker soon, and I hope he’ll say ‘Markie dear, play something.’ ”

After Michal Hambourg’s appearances with her father and solo debut, she began touring throughout England in shared recitals with Paul Robeson, Richard Tauber, and Lawrence Tibbett. The Proms first engaged her in 1938, when she performed Saint-Saens’ Second Piano Concerto with Sir Henry Wood. During the war, she participated in the National Gallery concerts organized by Myra Hess. Hambourg appeared with the BBC Symphony and in solo recitals. She added to her repertoire new compositions by her colleagues Lennox Berkeley and Alan Rawsthorne.

While Hambourg’s time is now primarily spent aiding young gifted musicians, she has consented to an on-going project initiated with her Schumann recording: to select works from her repertoire and record them when she feels the time is right. Some seven sessions, from which future CDs will be compiled, have documented works by Bach, Gluck, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Ravel, and her father’s Volkslied.

Michal Hambourg’s mother Dorothea Muir MacKenzie (a pupil of Ysaye in Belgium, where she met Mark Hambourg) carefully preserved voluminous scrapbooks, letters and photos that account for Mark Hambourg’s six-decade career. Copies of his books and pedagogical articles from rare music journals are also contained in the collection. In 1996, Michal Hambourg donated all of the material to the International Piano Archive at the University of Maryland. In addition to the source material, a unique score belonging to the family for nearly a century was added to their bequest: the Beethoven Piano Concertos, edited by Ignaz Moscheles. This rare edition was used by Mark Hambourg when he recorded the Third Concerto, using Moscheles’ cadenza. The score had fingerings and pedal markings inked in after publication. Whose were they? Michal Hambourg said they were not her father’s, rather they were made by its original owner. The title page bore Moscheles’ signature: it had been his own working copy – a gift to the young Hambourg from Moscheles’ son Felix, a distinguished painter who had been Hambourg’s guardian in Britain who, with Paderewski, helped finance his studies in Vienna. One may now examine the annotations by a contemporary of Beethoven in a score used by him, which also introduced the music to both Hambourgs.

For this anthology of recordings, we chose the Chopin Andante Spianato as it represents a lost art of cantilena and rubato playing which Hambourg learned in the 19th century: it sounds as though one is being drawn into a dream-state. The following Beethoven sonata attests to the monumentality of Anton Rubinstein’s influence, a rare example of pre-Schnabelian playing. Leonard Borwick, a piano pupil of Clara Schumann, entrusted the premiere of his piano arrangement of Debussy’s Prelude to Hambourg; this rare recording is a reminder that Hambourg knew Ravel and may have encountered Debussy. Our booklet’s cover photo was taken at the Abbey Road studios in 1933, during the Schumann recording session: note the closed scores on their pianos, as they played both Schumann and Liszt from memory.

The Liszt Legende and Schumann Fantasie are Michal Hambourg’s first recordings since 1934, played in one take and unedited, as she wished to preserve them as performances, rather than the assembled and edited “product” of the recording industry. Schumann’s Fantasie is a significant composition for the Hambourgs: Michal was advised by her father not to learn it until she was past twenty “in order to be able to do it justice.” She is concerned that, as her conception of the work is constantly changing and evolving, one performance cannot be entirely representative. Hambourg’s new recordings are played on her 1900 Bluthner grand, maintained by Colin Leverett, manager of the Bluthner workshops at Perivale (London). It has additional fourth strings in the treble register that vibrate sympathetically. She points out the advantages in using a Bluthner, especially in realizing Chopin’s ornaments, as Leschetizky taught her father that they were “prisms of light” which seem to Michal like “heavy tapestry” when played on other instruments. Mark Hambourg’s HMV discs were made on a Bechstein.

The musical contributions by the Hambourg family are continuing, as the Hambourg Archive is available for consultation at IPAM, detailing their past activities and concepts, while Michal Hambourg’s new project illustrates a heritage developing even further through her ongoing studies of Western and Oriental philosophy, a lifetime of music-making, and willingness to remind all of music’s vital role in our lives.

Allan EvansĀ©1997