Let me start with a collateral pleasure that this disc brings with it, and that’s the increasing representation on CD of the conductorial art of Landon Ronald. Historic Records has been going great guns on his behalf, and their restorations of his major Tchaikovsky symphonic recordings have been of real merit. So too is this collaboration with Mark Hambourg in the Piano Concerto, a traversal that has never before been transferred either to LP or CD.
Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has utilised US Victor ‘Orthoponic’ pressings for this – whereas he used standard domestic HMVs for the companion Beethoven concerto. The Victors have more presence than the HMVs and have been transferred at a somewhat higher level as well. The 1926 early electric recording copes as well as could be expected with the thunderous octave flourishes and manages a good frequency response with regard to the basses of the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra. The strings of the band are on typically expressive and romantic form, though their portamenti are somewhat more predictably placed here than could often be the case with Ronald’s Tchaikovsky, where he varied this flavoursome and expected device with alluring intelligence. The winds are highly effective in their own way. Hambourg plays with authority and control. As Obert-Thorn notes, he does indulge some interesting narrative paragraphs in his slowing for the waltz passage in the slow movement, which is rightly accommodated by Ronald, and which brings out the balletic implications of the writing. One can explicitly contrast this with another Russian performer, Sapelnikoff, who had earlier recorded the concerto with the Aeolian Orchestra and Stanley Chapple for Vocalion and who is the more rectitudinous here. Hambourg’s performance however is characterful, powerfully personalised (with some textual emendations) and echt romantic.
Hambourg only recorded two commercially released concerto performances. The other was Beethoven’s C minor Concerto in 1929 which staked HMVs electric marker after the first ever recording, William Murdoch’s acoustic reading for Columbia with Hamilton Harty, had been superseded by the new technology. Are we going to get that one soon? The conductor for Hambourg here was Malcolm Sargent, already well versed in studio matters by now. The pianist’s opening statements are laced with rubato, and this fluid approach to metrics is a constant of his performance, a pre-Schnabelian one if you will, though that’s a reductive idea in itself. It’s only in retrospect that Schnabel has come to dominate the early concerto and sonata discography. How different things would have been, for instance, had Rachmaninoff accepted the offer to record the sonatas for Victor. Or had Lamond recorded more of them. Nevertheless this fluid approach to structure is complemented by a lovely tone, and by the use of Moscheles’s cadenza; Hambourg knew Moscheles’s son, Felix, which perhaps explains it. He plays it certainly with marvellous élan. The refinement and poetic phrasing of the slow movement, played with treble-based filigree, explains in part Hambourg’s position as one of the most elegant and admirable of pianists of his time. And it chimes with his view of the concerto as a whole, which is light, bright and the opposite of stentorian – though some of the brass figures in the finale do tend toward that effect. Hambourg’s runs are not wholly accurate but who’s counting.
This performance has been released before by Pearl [GEMM 9147] back in 1995. That one had far more pops and clicks than this newer entrant but it also had more presence. Obert-Thorn has had to trade presence for a lower level smoother ride. I ran my own 78 set alongside both these transfers and rather wished that he could have gone for a touch more room presence and allowed a bit more surface noise from the admittedly rather noisy HMVs.
Still, this is fine work on behalf of Hambourg, whose major statements stand as lasting examples of his too-often overlooked art.