MARK HAMBOURG

(b. Bogutchar, S.Russia, 1879; d.Cambridge, England 1960)

Mark Hambourg
See also portrait of Mark later in life

The most famous of the Hambourg family, pianist Mark Hambourg was known throughout the world. As a 12-year old boy just arrived in London, he impressed musical society immediately as a great talent. Ignace Paderewski sent Mark to study with his own great teacher in Vienna, Theodore Leschetizky, to whom he ascribed his own success and who was also the teacher of Arthur Schnabel, Ossip Gabrilowitsch and Benno Moisiewitsch. Paderewski was so delighted with Mark that he insisted on financing Mark’s tuition for two years.

From that time on Mark Hambourg became the idol of the British public as a concert pianist. In 1895, having completed his studies with Leschetizky, he embarked on a tour of Australia, which was to prove an unqualified success. On one occasion the French virtuoso pianist Raoul Pugno became ill and was unable to play the newly composed Cesar Franck Violin Sonata with Eugene Ysaÿe – (Franck’s wedding present to Ysaÿe). Mark was invited to step into the breach, and they subsequently toured Europe and the British Isles, introducing this beautiful work to the musical public.

In 1907 he married the Hon. Dorothea Muir Mackenzie, at one time a pupil of Eugene Ysaÿe. Their daughter Michal Hambourg became a well known concert pianist in her own right.

The renowned European conductor Hans Richter chose Mark to play the Brahms piano concertos at the beginning of Mark’s adult career. Ferrucio Busoni composed and conducted his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 39, with a chorus of male voices with piano in 1908 and dedicated it to Mark. Later that year they performed this work at Scarborough, England. Perhaps Mark’s warmest supporter and friend was the great Maurice Rosenthal. This friendship endured through their lifetime. The conductor Arthur Nickish was another staunch colleague. Maurice Moszkowski dedicated his Concert Etude in E-flat, The Waves, to Mark. Cyril Scott and Arthur Benjamin also dedicated compositions to Mark.

When the Hambourg family moved to Toronto, Mark played in that city many times, both as soloist and with orchestra, culminating in 1935 with the memorable Massey Hall concert together with Jan, Boris. Sir Ernest MacMillan conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Back in London, Mark performed at lunch hour concerts during the war, sharing the platform with Myra Hess and other well known artists. Mark’s last visit to Toronto was made in 1949, when he gave a master class at the Hambourg Conservatory and presented a solo recital at Eaton Auditorium. He also appeared at a Promenade Symphony Concert with Reginald Stewart conducting at which he performed Tschaikowsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor.

Many early recordings for R.C.A. Victor and His Master’s Voice, documentaries for British Gaumont Educational, and a delightful film in 1942 sponsored by Lady Yule entitled The Common Touch, which won an Oscar in the United States. He also played on television broadcasts throughout the world. A recently released CD by Arbiter features Mark and Michael playing both solos and piano duos.

Mark died in Cambridge, England in 1959. He wrote two lively books based on his own life – How to Play the Piano, and The Eighth Octave, also two striking compositions for solo piano—Chant Khirghiz and Pandemonium. He was a beloved member of the Savage Club of London.

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No 1 in B-flat minor — first movement: Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso — Allegro con spirito
— The Royal Albert Hall Orchestra, Landon Ronald, conductor, with Mark Hambourg, soloist | Listen  

Address given by Gerald Moore at Mark's Memorial Service, October 5, 1960


Notice of a performance in London, 1954 from the Arts and Letters Club newsletter, Sept.1954

descended from Beethovan

Mark's music training lineage can be traced right back to Beethoven - click this image for an extraordinary family tree of musicians at full size (opens in a new window).






Cartoon from a Programme of the Savage Club, London, U.K., 1906, courtesy Arts & Letters Club of Toronto



A Reputation Restored – Mark Hambourg live recording discovered

In the last two months I have pursued and acquired five collections of rare classical audio material for the British Library one of which held a rare treasure. When I received a call from a gentleman aged 82 offering his collection of off-air broadcasts I was interested. When he told me that it was his father’s collection I was excited. It transpired that Frank Hardingham had bought a reel to reel tape recorder in Christmas 1950 - very early for this type of technology in the home.

The donated collection of tapes is small, but most important is the fact that Mr Hardingham did not over-record his earlier existing recordings with later broadcasts by more modern performers. One of the recordings is of great historical importance because it rewrites the history of a career of one of the great pianists of the twentieth century.

Mark Hambourg was born in Russia in 1879, went to Vienna at the age of twelve to study with the great Theodore Leschetizky (teacher of Paderewski, Moiseiwitsch, Friedman etc.) and gave his adult debut with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Hans Richter in 1895 at the age of fifteen. During these years he spent time with Brahms, Anton Rubinstein, Busoni and Mark Twain. At his London adult debut the following year he played three concertos in one concert under Henry Wood. Hambourg’s popularity meant he was one of the first pianists to record for the Gramophone Company/His Master’s Voice in 1909 and one of the first to appear on television in 1937. He was known to the man in the street and popular enough to appear as himself in the film The Common Touch.

Mark Hambourg (seated) at his 25th Celebration lunch at the Savoy given by HMV in November 1934 listening to his first recording. Standing behind him are his daughter Michal and wife Dorothea. Photo courtesy of Allan Evans

His youngest of four daughters, Michal Hambourg, was a professional pianist herself who toured with the great African American singer Paul Robeson and performed at eleven Prom concerts. I was fortunate enough to study piano with her for the last ten years of her life. She told me that when producer Walter Legge took over at HMV he cancelled her father’s contract because Legge saw him as representing an old fashioned way of playing and that Artur Schnabel was the future. Hambourg made no more commercial recordings after December 1935 but lived until 1960. His reputation during this last chapter of his life is of an artist who had seen better days, who played in a slap-dash fashion often in small venues. The few surviving short films from this period to some extent bear this out and certainly do not show him at his best.

Now we have evidence that Hambourg retained his technical and artistic abilities to the end of his career because Mr Hardingham recorded the Henry Wood Birthday Concert from the Albert Hall on the 2nd March 1955. Wood died in 1944, but due to the reverence for his personality and musicianship, concerts were still being held eleven years later to celebrate his birthday.

Mr Hardingham's clipping from the Radio Times inserted into the tape box

So, now we have Hambourg, aged seventy-five, playing the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Malcolm Sargent, live, complete and in excellent sound on tape from sixty years ago. I listened to it with trepidation because the previous year the BBC had broadcast on both radio and television a performance of Hambourg in Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasia of which only the last few minutes survive. That excerpt is disappointing. However, this recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto shows a great artist in full possession of his faculties. It is very similar in conception to his 1926 commercial recording (although in 1955 he had better support from Malcolm Sargent) and contains the same unusual features – the echo effect in the cadenza to the first movement, and the slowing of the waltz section of the Prestissimo in the second movement. The 1955 performance is far superior and, thanks to Mr Hardingham and his family’s donation, it restores Hambourg’s reputation as one of the great pianists of the first half of the twentieth century.

The conclusion of the performance can be heard below.

Hambourg Tchaikovsky Concerto


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