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(1879 - 1960)

Mark Hambourg came from an extremely musical family. His father, Michael (1855–1916) was a pianist and teacher who had studied at the St Petersburg and Moscow Conservatories with Nicolas Rubinstein and Sergei Taneyev. He moved his family to London in 1890, thence to Canada in 1910 where a year later he founded the Hambourg Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Mark’s first teacher of the piano was his father; later, he wrote in his autobiography, ‘My father never drove me, though I had a great natural facility and learnt in four days at the age of seven The Lark by Glinka/Balakirev, a work too difficult for me.’ As a child prodigy Hambourg appeared in Moscow in 1888 playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor K. 466, and made his London debut the following year at the age of ten playing works that included Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A flat Op. 26. Being a prodigy, Hambourg was advertised with the diminutive ‘Max’ until he reached maturity.

The proceeds of these concerts enabled Michael Hambourg to bring the rest of his family to London. The Hambourgs became acquainted with the artist Felix Moscheles, the son of composer and pianist Ignaz Moscheles who had been a pupil of Beethoven. At Moscheles’s home the Hambourgs met many famous and influential people. Paderewski heard Mark in London and recommended Leschetizky as the best teacher for the young boy. Not only that, but Paderewski generously gave the money required for the three years of tuition in Vienna. After two farewell recitals at the Prince’s Hall in London, Mark left for Vienna in the summer of 1891: he was twelve and a half years old.

Within three years of study with Leschetizky Hambourg was ready for his Vienna debut where he played Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor Op. 11 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Hans Richter. At fifteen, this was his adult debut, and such was his success that the following year he played Anton Rubinstein’s Concerto No. 4 Op. 70 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Arthur Nikisch. When Hambourg left Leschetizky after three years of tuition, the old man returned all the money Hambourg had paid for his lessons, claiming that Mark would need the money more than he did.

After a tour of Australia in 1895, in January 1896 Hambourg made his adult debut in London with a recital of works by Beethoven Chopin, Schumann, Rubinstein and Liszt. A few months later Hambourg played Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 in E minor Op. 11, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54 and Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy in one concert, with Henry Wood conducting. The Musical Times stated, ‘In all these works the young pianist displayed remarkable executive command of the keyboard…’ Within the next few months, ‘Mark Hambourg gave an extraordinarily brilliant and powerful rendering of Rubinstein’s difficult Concerto in D minor. The technique and verve displayed were, for so youthful an executant, quite remarkable.’ At this time he also gave concerts with the most famous artists of the day such as violinist Joseph Joachim (1831–1907) and cellist Alfredo Piatti (1822–1901).

During these early years Hambourg had an extremely busy schedule; he played Brahms’s Concerto No. 1 in D minor Op. 15 in Paris with Édouard Colonne and Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37 in Brussels with Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe conducting. He also had the honour of giving the first London performance of Busoni’s Piano Concerto Op. 39 with the composer conducting. The two musicians had become close friends, and Busoni dedicated his Sonatina No. 2 to Hambourg. It was Sir Landon Ronald who wrote, ‘Busoni told me that he considered him to possess the greatest natural piano virtuosity of any living pianist.’ Another tour of Australia followed in 1897 when Hambourg was accompanied by his younger brother Jan, a violinist, and in 1898 Hambourg gave the first performance of Eduard Schütt’s Piano Concerto with Édouard Colonne conducting his orchestra. The composer came to London from Vienna to hear it, and that same year Hambourg himself travelled to Vienna to visit his old teacher Leschetizky. Then followed his first tour of America where he played with the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestras and toured as far as California. In 1901 Hambourg was asked to deputise for Busoni, who was ill, in duo concerts with Ysaÿe. The Belgian violinist had a strong musical influence on young Hambourg and it was at one of Ysaÿe’s summer classes that Mark met his future wife, Dorothea Muir-Mackenzie, daughter of Sir Kenneth (Lord) Muir-Mackenzie. They were married in 1907 and had four daughters, the youngest of whom, Michal (1919–2004) had a career as a concert pianist, often giving joint recitals with her father.

Hambourg’s early years were spent in the company of some of the greatest artists of the time including Brahms, Anton Rubinstein, Ferruccio Busoni and Mark Twain, and through his marriage into the British aristocracy he became acquainted with many leading political figures of the day. From his mature debut in 1894 until World War II, Hambourg toured extensively and continuously in Europe, Russia, Australia, North and South America, Canada, North and South Africa, India and Egypt. He worked very hard all his life. As early as 1906 he gave his 1000th concert, and by 1913, at the age of thirty-four, had given 2000 concerts. During his first Australian tour he played fifty-three times in two cities during three months, giving seventeen recitals in twenty days. He often appeared with his brothers, violinist Jan, and cellist Boris, and continued to play in Britain during the 1950s, making his last appearance in London in 1955. In October 1950 Hambourg celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of his first London appearance with a concert at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In the first half he played music by Beethoven, in the second he played Chopin.

Hambourg was a very popular pianist all over the world and particularly in Britain. He had taken British citizenship when he was seventeen and had become part of British social life. He lived in London for the whole of his adult life, for the most part in Cumberland Terrace surrounded by the many antiques that he had collected, and, like his friend Benno Moiseiwitsch, was a member of the Savage Club. Hambourg’s popularity led to him making appearances in a number of feature films, most notably in The Common Touch (1941), in which he plays sections of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23. He was also one of the first pianists to appear on television in 1937 and had made his radio debut in 1935.

Although he was one of the greatest of Leschetizky’s pupils along with Ignaz Friedman and Ignacy Paderewski, Hambourg’s reputation has suffered over the years since his death. His playing was of the ‘grand style’, free, uninhibited and extrovert, a type of playing that is frowned upon today by many pianists and academics. When Hambourg visited Leschetizky for the last time in 1913 his old teacher told him, ‘You play more like Anton Rubinstein than anyone I have ever heard!’

Hambourg was one of the first pianists to make gramophone records, his first discs being made for HMV in 1909 when he was thirty. These early discs displayed his liking for contemporary music as he recorded Scriabin, Debussy and Rachmaninov in 1917, and would later record works by Debussy, Ravel and Falla in the 1920s. At his early recording sessions he also played works by Bach, William Byrd, John Blow, John Bull, Handel, Thomas Arne, Domenico Scarlatti and François Couperin. In 1917 he made his only chamber music recordings with a quartet comprising Marjorie Hayward, C. Warwick Evans, Herbert Kinze and Frank Bridge. They played movements by Schumann, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns and Beethoven. Between the introduction of the electrical process in 1925 and 1934 Hambourg recorded prolifically; around 126 twelve-inch sides, and 56 ten-inch sides were issued. These electric recordings reveal playing that is variable, but the best of them capture the free spirit and wonderful tone of a great artist. It must be remembered that Hambourg, like many artists, did not enjoy the recording process. As he said in 1923, ‘I am always worn out after a morning of doing records, and I think it the most fatiguing work I know, what with the nervous tension and the incessant repeating.’

Of the acoustic recordings the best are of Chopin’s Nocturne in E major Op. 62 No. 2 and the modern works such as Debussy’s La plus que lent, works by Scriabin and Rachmaninov; what is probably the first recording of Ravel’s Ondine from Gaspard de la nuit, and the virtuoso transcriptions by Tausig and Liszt. Of the electrical recordings the best is of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A flat major Op. 26, and those which display Hambourg’s wonderful singing tone and vocal phrasing: Sgambati’s arrangement of the Melodie from Gluck’s Orfeo; Mendelssohn’s Auf Flügeln des Gesange arranged by Liszt, and some of the Lieder ohne Worte; and Harold Rutland’s arrangement of two sea shanties.

The discs which do not show Hambourg at his best are generally of popular works he must have played thousands of times, such as Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor and Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3. In these his playing is impetuous and irascible, with much of the music being hurried over and rushed. His recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 is again in the ‘grand style’, where Hambourg adopts a much slower tempo than is heard today in the waltz section of the second movement.

Very little of Hambourg’s discography has been reissued. Pearl have produced one compact disc which contains the Beethoven Concerto No. 3 and a cross-section of his solo recordings, whilst Arbiter have produced a disc entitled The Hambourg Legacy containing recordings by Hambourg from 1914 to 1934 and modern recordings by his daughter, Michal. Three works appear on IPAM’s Harry Anderson Collection, and APR have produced a compact disc of Hambourg playing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies.

Hambourg composed works for solo piano including Variations on a theme of Paganini (1902), and made arrangements of works for piano solo and two pianos. He also published three books: two of autobiography, From Piano to Forte (1931) and The Eighth Octave (1951); and How to play the piano (1923), the first edition of which was entitled How to become a pianist (1922).

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).

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LEGENDS OF THE PIANO - Acoustic Recordings 1901-1924 Naxos Historical
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