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Beethoven Sonata Recital 1965
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 "Pathétique" [19:34]
Piano Sonata No. 13 in E flat major, Op. 27 No. 1 [16:44]
Piano Sonata No. 24 in F sharp major, Op. 78 [10:44]
Piano Sonata No. 25 in G major, Op. 79 [10:29]
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 [29:34]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Prelude in E flat minor from WTC, Book 1 [4:56]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Für Elise, WoO 59 [3:56]
Bruce Hungerford (piano)
rec. live, 29 July 1965, Margravial Opera House, Bayreuth
First ever release
KASP RECORDS 57741 [36:17 + 59:37]

The Last Recital 1976
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Sonata in A major, K 331 [19:44]
March in C major, K. 408 [4:39]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Waltzes and Ländler [12:41]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Piano Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10, No. 1 [17:02]
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 [26:17]
Franz SCHUBERT
Impromptu in A flat major, D.935, No. 2 [6:59]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, arr. Myra Hess [3:47]
Bruce Hungerford (piano)
rec. live, 8 December 1976, University Theatre of the University of Calgary, Canada
KASP RECORDS 57761 [55:33 + 36:57]

On 26 January 1977, Bruce Hungerford, concert pianist and Egyptologist, was returning home by car from a lecture on Egypt he had just given at Rockefeller University. With him were his mother, his niece and her husband. A head-on collision in the Bronx, caused by a drunk driver, resulted in the deaths of all four. Bruce Hungerford was only fifty-four. At the time he was more than halfway through a recording project of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas (review). The survey had begun in the 1960s and, at the time of his death, he had recorded twenty-two of the thirty-two sonatas. Although relatively unknown until the 1970s, when he did make his mark it was as a Beethoven interpreter.

He was born Leonard Sinclair Hungerford in Korumburra, Victoria, Australia on 24 November 1922. It was only later that he changed his name to Bruce. He studied for a short time with Ignaz Friedman in Sydney but in 1945 upped sticks and travelled to the Juilliard School of Music in New York. He also spent time with Carl Friedberg and Dame Myra Hess. He had another string to his bow; he was a keen palaeontologist and Egyptologist.

Listening to the 1965 all-Beethoven recital confirms for me, without any reservations, Hungerford's reputation as a great Beethoven player—one in a long list that includes, amongst others, Schnabel, Nat and Kempff. The venue for the concert is the Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth, Germany, the date 29 July. The pianist kicks off with the Pathétique Sonata and, despite its familiarity, the performance never sounds jaded. The opening Grave is dark and dramatic, and leads into to an Allegro of energy and gusto. I am particularly taken with the precision and clarity of the mordents in the second subject. The Adagio is ethereal and the Rondo high-spirited. I am pleased that he opted for Op. 27 No. 1 rather than the Moonlight. There is a strong sense of fantasy throughout. The slow movement has an ardent sincerity, and in the brisk finale he truly achieves the tingle factor. Two short sonatas, No. 25 followed by 24, precede the Op. 111. The former is invested with generous helpings of wit and good humour. It is a treat to hear these two live, as they are rarely programmed.

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.

The common denominator in both recitals is Beethoven's sublime Op. 111. I was fortunately able to compare them with Hungerford's studio recording which, dating from 1967, sits between the two. Comparing all three readings, I was struck by how interpretively similar they are. Although the audio quality of the studio recording far exceeds that of the concert airings, the freshness and spontaneity, with a sense of music evolving on the wing, is more tangible in these live performances. They are slightly less calculated. The opening movement is robust and impassioned, with an eye for grand gesture, with the fugal elements cleanly delineated. He seems at pains to make the contrast between the conflict and struggle of the first movement and the profound serenity of the second. In the Arietta the variations are cumulatively built up, resulting in an otherworldly quality and overwhelming sense of inevitability. In the earlier recital the audience observe a respectful pause before applauding. The question of whether to play an encore after this work is a personal choice for the performer. I have heard both Alfred Brendel and Maurizio Pollini perform this sonata in recital and neither followed it with an encore. As a listener I prefer that, as any music played after this work breaks the spell for me, but that is only a personal opinion and others may take a different view.

Hungerford lavishes the same care and detail on both sets of encore pieces. 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 booklet notes of the earlier 1965 recital explain some of the problems the mastering engineer encountered with the source material. The condition of the original tapes required some amelioration. Though allowances have to be made, the results are perfectly satisfactory considering the age and provenance of the recordings. There are no such problems with the 1976 recording. The audio quality is warm and intimate. These valuable historical documents further expand the pianist's slender discography. The albums have been produced by Donald Isler, the founder of KASP Records, who was himself a student of Bruce Hungerford. His accompanying annotations add a personal touch. There is no doubting that on the strength of the compelling musicianship found in these performances, Hungerford is a pianist that deserves to be better known. Piano aficionados, especially those who appreciate great Beethoven playing, will find much to appreciate here.

Stephen Greenbank

 

 




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