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KASP 57791 — Pianist Bruce Hungerford - DVD - Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4

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Album Notes

This is the only known concert video of pianist Bruce Hungerford, and perhaps the best ever live performance of a Beethoven piano concerto on DVD.

At least four complete cycles of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas were planned for the 1970 Bicentennial of the composer's birth. The oldest pianist, Wilhelm Backhaus was in his eighties, and had a long career behind him. Claude Frank, a very respected musician, was in the middle of his career. Daniel Barenboim, whose career as pianist and conductor continues to this day, was already well-known, having started off as a child prodigy.

And then there was Bruce Hungerford, who toiled at his art for many years with little recognition and fewer engagements, briefly became a well-recognized name, and later was largely forgotten after he was killed in a 1977 auto accident (caused by a drunk driver). In the opinion of many, the greatness of his artistry is in inverse proportion to his luck.

Indeed, there are people who compare Hungerford with the great Artur Schnabel, whose depth and passion in this music are rarely matched. Those already familiar with Hungerford's playing will know what I'm talking about. It was the aim of the Bruce Hungerford Memorial Foundation, which existed for 25 years after his death, and was founded by my parents, Charlotte and the late Werner Isler, to perpetuate the memory of this sadly neglected artist, primarily by giving awards to brilliant young pianists in his name.

KASP Records has continued this work by releasing CDs of two live Hungerford recitals. One, recorded in Germany in 1965, includes five Beethoven sonatas, and is one of THE great all-Beethoven recitals that have been preserved. The other is Hungerford's last recital, given in Calgary a month and a half before his death. It includes two Beethoven sonatas, a Mozart sonata, a set of Schubert dances played in a uniquely powerful, and elegant manner that shows off both the music's sophistication as well as its simplicity, plus encores.

And now we have something truly unique to add to his published, recorded legacy.

Years ago I read that there was supposedly a made-for-television concert by Hungerford recorded in East Germany in 1964. (One of the ironies of his career was that THERE he was highly renowned, giving numerous recitals, and playing the full cycle of Beethoven piano concerti. The currency in East Germany, however, was worthless outside that country, so he had to buy goods he could sell when he left, to make any money on these engagements.) For the longest time I wondered if the video really existed. And then, about a year ago, a short piece of it appeared on the web. Of course, I was terrifically excited to SEE my teacher (and my parents' good friend) in action at the piano for the first time in 40 years!

That, however, would not be reason enough to release it publicly.

I am doing so because this is a FABULOUS performance. To my mind, this is how this music should sound!

This DVD features a complete performance of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major. (Well, complete except for an unfortunate ten seconds early in the first movement where, because of an error in the original recording, the sound briefly stops, though the video continues.) As a bonus, there is also Mussorgsky's Night On Bald Mountain, with the instrumentation of Rimsky-Korsakoff. The Staatskapelle Berlin, in both works, is led by the distinguished Russian conductor, Boris Khaikin. The program was a production of "the Das Meisterwerk series" of East German Television.

To return to Hungerford: What made him such a great Beethoven interpreter? One of the best answers to this is what a respected colleague of mine once said about him: "When other pianists play Beethoven, I think of the pianist. When Hungerford plays Beethoven, I think of Beethoven!"

One could say that Hungerford understood how to wring the utmost depths of expression out of this music without resorting to romantic "excess," such as a loose, and free-wheeling rubato, which would weaken the classical structure. He generally played fast movements quite fast, and slow movements very slowly, though neither metronomically. His technique sparkled, and he was a leonine presence at the piano. He highlighted melodies brilliantly, especially those in a high register. His trills were often amazing, such as the long and perfectly even trills in the first movement's cadenza, as well as the way he seems to "light a match" with the trills in the second movement.

Although he was one of the finest Beethoven pianists in what may be called the "Schnabel tradition," Hungerford was not a Schnabel student, though he almost became one. When Hungerford called to make an appointment for an audition he was told that Mr. Schnabel was going to Europe for the summer and he could play for him when Schnabel returned. In the meantime, however, Hungerford met Carl Friedberg, a student of Brahms and Clara Schumann, whom he found an inspiring teacher. Earlier he had worked at Juilliard with Ernest Hutcheson, and still earlier, in his native Australia, he studied with Cortot student Roy Shepherd, and with Ignaz Friedman. (Which explains why he was also a wonderful Chopin interpreter!)

Boris Khaikin (1904-1978) was a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, and later, a professor there. During his career he was artistic director of the Little Leningrad Theater and principal conductor at the Kirov and Bolshoi Theaters.

Most of the announcements on the program by the host, Irmgard Dürer, (in German, naturally) are biographical information about Hungerford and Khaikin. They also include comments about the works performed.

—Donald Isler

David Dubal called Hungerford “A seriously great pianist.”

MusicWeb International wrote of this album:

"Until very recently no film footage of the pianist (Hungerford) was known to exist. Then, a year ago, a short extract of this televised concert in black and white appeared on the internet. Never having seen Hungerford in action before, I got some surprises. He appears to be a big man with large hands. He has, what I can only describe as, a big-boned technique. As I was watching him, Yves Nat sprang to mind. The slow movement is noble and probing, and the finale is power-driven and literally knocks you for six. Khaikin delivers a thrilling account of Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, in the Rimsky Korsakov version. With plenty of bite, lusty exuberance and rhythmic punch, the performance is about as high octane as you're ever likely to hear."

The American Record Guide said:

"Lovers of great pianism are in for a treat as the legendary artist, who died in an automobile accident, gives us a memorable performance from January 12, 1964 at Berlin Radio......I would not want to be without this....... Russian conductor Boris Khaikin (1904-78) is a marvel of sympathetic leadership, and I have been impressed by most of his recordings. As a bonus, he conducts Moussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain in the Rimsky-Korsakoff arrangement. It's an exciting and powerful performance."

KASP 57791 — Pianist Bruce Hungerford - DVD - Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4

$ 19.95 plus shipping (DVD)

Buy at CD Baby


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