KASP 57761 — Live recital with music of Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Bach/Hess
$ 16 plus shipping (CD)
Of course it was not supposed to be the last recital.
The career trajectory of the Australian-born pianist, Bruce Hungerford (1922-1977), appeared to be upward at last on December 8th, 1976, when he gave this recital at the University of Calgary, devoted to the memory of his friend and mentor, Dame Myra Hess. (He had also performed it just a few weeks earlier at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, New York.) But by the time the Calgary concert was heard on a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program some months later, it was in memory of both of them.
There was to be one more live performance, on January 9th, 1977, when he played the Fourth Piano Concerto of Beethoven with a student orchestra at a public high school in New York City (after which he gamely answered audience questions, such as "How long have you been playing the piano?"!).
Left unfulfilled, or incomplete at the time of the late night January 26th auto accident - which took his life, and those of three family members, caused by a drunk driver in a larger vehicle - was the completion of his Beethoven sonata cycle for Vanguard Records, a number of New York recitals for the newly formed Beethoven Society, and recognition as one of the great classical pianists of the day.
Why was his sonata cycle, planned for the 1970 Beethoven Bicentennial, still incomplete in 1977? (The last LP, bringing the total number of sonatas recorded to 22, was released after his death.) Partly because he had never performed the entire cycle, partly because he insisted on learning works seven times before performing or recording them, and partly because he insisted on redoing sessions when the playing, though impressive to those who attended, was not up to the level he demanded of himself.
A recording is only a snapshot of where you are at the moment with a certain work. But, unless you're fortunate to have the opportunity to record the 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas more than once (which Wilhelm Kempff and Daniel Barenboim have done) a recording is probably your statement of a lifetime on that music. And Bruce Hungerford was determined to get it right each time. This former Hungerford student had the privilege of attending the majority of his Vanguard recording sessions, and recalls that there was no limit to how late he was willing to work, or how many takes he was willing to make.
A uniquely brilliant individual, who did professional caliber work as a photographer and Egyptologist, he could also draw wonderfully, and had a great interest in paleontology (which almost got him into trouble once, when he was involved in a dig near a state penitentiary!). Music was only the foremost of his interests. In a more perfect world his gifts would have been recognized sooner. But, unlike Jorge Bolet, one of the other great pianists of the era who was only "discovered" and went on to a major performing career in late middle age, the "big career" always eluded Hungerford.
For one who developed a real virtuoso technique he began his study of the piano remarkably late, at age twelve. His major teachers in Australia were Roy Shepherd, a Cortot student, and the great Chopin interpreter, Ignaz Friedman. Known as Leonard Hungerford (he changed his name to Bruce in his thirties) he came to New York in December, 1945. His major teachers here were Ernest Hutcheson, and Carl Friedberg, who had known Brahms and Clara Schumann. (Although he had a particularly warm relationship with Friedberg, and recorded his lessons with him - hopefully these will one day be published - Friedberg did not always approve of Hungerford's Cortot and Friedman--influenced Chopin interpretations. Once he greeted Hungerford with "Oh, Leonard, I heard Rubinstein play the Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise last night. You would have loved it! He had 22 different tempi!")
In the 1950s Hungerford played several recitals at New York's Town Hall, but despite the generally fine reviews, he did not get a major recording contract, nor did his career take off. He returned to his native Australia for a tour in 1957, and in 1958 moved to Europe, where he lived till returning to the United States in 1967. He performed in Belgium and England as well as in East and West Germany, where he lived on Lake Starnberg, not far from Munich. He was particularly popular in East Germany, where he played the complete cycle of Beethoven piano concerti. During his time in Europe he taught at the Bayreuth Festival master classes, and made the first recording of the complete piano works of Richard Wagner. It was also in Bayreuth that, in 1965, he played an all-Beethoven recital (he also played it later, at Carnegie Hall), which KASP Records has previously released.
Bruce Hungerford lived his last ten years in an apartment over a set of garages on an estate in New Rochelle, New York, surrounded by his scores, recordings of other great artists, and other treasures acquired on his trips to Egypt and Europe, most of which he could quickly locate despite the clutter. There he saw his private students, as well as some of his students from the Mannes College of Music and the State University of New York at Purchase. And there he practiced long into the night, ever struggling to deepen and improve his performances, and never doubting that "his day" would come.
The two Beethoven sonatas on this recital were staples of Bruce Hungerford's performing repertoire in his last years, especially Op. 111, for which he was particularly renowned. The Schubert Waltzes and Ländler were also a specialty of his. He always began with the same two or three, and ended with the same one, but varied those in-between. Though they are technically relatively easy it is rare, indeed, to hear them played with this combination of elegance, sophistication, simplicity and sensuality. His performances of music by Mozart were few and far-between, which does seem strange, as the Sonata and March in this performance demonstrate that he had just the right spirit, classical aesthetic, and pearly finger work needed for music by the Master from Salzburg. His encores are a beautifully played Schubert Impromptu, and Myra Hess' transcription of Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, which he played frequently, and which appears here as a benediction.
MusicWeb International wrote:
The 1976 Last Recital has a certain poignancy. It was taped barely six weeks before the pianist's tragic death. Hungerford's elegant and refined rendition of Mozart's Sonata in A major opens up and reveals the wealth of riches that lie at the heart of this lyrically endowed work. The variations of the first movement are stylishly characterized. The Alla Turca finale is genial, sprightly and rhythmically charged. The March which follows is new to me; it has a rarefied charm of its own. The Schubert Waltzes and Ländler, we are told, were one of the pianist's staples, and he would vary many of them at different concerts. He invests them with a plenitude of Viennese charm. The rising triad opening of the Piano Sonata no. 5 in C minor, Op. 10, No. 1 is incisive and assertive, calling the listener to attention. Hungerford's contrast between this dramatic first subject and the lyrically-vested second makes a forceful impact. The slow movement is eloquently narrated and offers some balm before the boisterous finale. Here he injects some highly nervous energy. Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring is in the familiar arrangement by Dame Myra Hess. The inclusion of this piece in the Last recital has a certain relevance, as the pianist dedicated this concert to her memory.
The Classical Music Guide said:
Any Hungerford recital was an historic event. His recorded legacy may have been small, but it is significant to all who value the art of fine pianism. This recital will be treasured, not only by music lovers familiar with Hungerford, but be a new generation eager to explore and discover.....Cause for celebration — purchase with confidence.
The Audiophile Audition wrote of this album:
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.
David Dubal called Hungerford “A seriously great pianist.”
Last recital of a great pianist before his tragic death.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
KASP 57761 — Live recital with music of Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Bach/Hess
$ 16 plus shipping (CD)