Classical Reissue Reviews

Bruce Hungerford plays BEETHOVEN = KASP Records (2 CDs)

A first release of a Bruce Hungerford all-Beethoven recital from 1965 reminds us what fate stole away cruelly in terms of a first-class musical practitioner.

Published on December 12, 2013

Bruce Hungerford plays BEETHOVEN = KASP Records (2 CDs)

Bruce Hungerford plays BEETHOVEN = Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 “Pathetique”; Piano Sonata No. 13 in E-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 25 in G Major, Op. 79; Piano Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp Major, Op. 78; Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111; Fur Elise, Wo0 59; BACH: Prelude in E-flat Minor, WTC I, BWV 853 – Bruce Hungerford, p. – KASP Records KASP 57741 (2 CDs) 36:17, 59:37 [www.kasprecords.com] ****:

Australian piano virtuoso Bruce Hungerford (1922-1977), a notable student of Ignaz Freidman, Ernst Hutcheson, and Carl Friedberg, made his reputation among record collectors for the 22 Beethoven sonatas he managed to record for Vanguard prior to his untimely death in a car collision. KASP records resurrects a Beethoven program Hungerford gave 29 July 1965 at the Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth, Germany.  Despite sonic limitations, the recital confirms Hungerford’s repute as a seriously devout artist, committed to a repertory that extended well beyond Beethoven to embrace his much-revered Romantics.

The Pathetique Sonata betrays surface hiss and pre-echo, but the solemnity and drive of the performance more than compensate for thin or shaky sound. A mixture of chromatic pain and diatonic will, the first movement – with repeat – achieves a driven momentum reminiscent of Rudolf Serkin but softened by the Carl Friedberg school of keyboard sonority.  The Adagio cantabile proves particularly touching, songful, and intimately attuned to the symmetry of the phrasing.  The “recovered context” of the Rondo: Allegro projects studied velocity and great delicacy of color nuance. The clean articulation in Hungerford’s staccato attacks require careful listening.  A blithe serenity of style secures this eminently graceful rendition that lacks nothing for passionate intelligence.

Beethoven’s 1801 E-flat Sonata Quasi Fantasia, overshadowed by its companion, the “Moonlight,”  offers Hungerford numerous opportunities to articulate a number of diverse style and keyboard effects. Hungerford can be quite explosive, as clearly evident in his punishing sforzati that intrude on what had been a ruminative opening movement. The improvisatory fleetness and occasional vehemence proceed into the brief Allegro molto vivace, a movement that pits harp effects against drums. A rollicking march ensues, finished off by a mighty trill. A thoughtful, lovely, even somberly ominous Adagio con espessione leads into an Allegro assai rife with contemplative cadenzas and learned counterpoint. Hungerford does not spare the velocity of this bravura movement, a tour de force for sheer sonic contrasts.

The eminently, playfully compressed G Major Sonata, Op. 79 (1809) combines brevity and Homeric wit. The first movement, attacked vigorously by Hungerford, presents a Presto alla tedesca, an impish German country dance. Hungerford’s blithe personality shines in this movement.  He proceeds to the rocking Andante, a model for Mendelssohn gondolier songs, with its poignant melodic content. The last movement Vivace utilizes a progression that adumbrates the first movement of Op. 109.  Hungerford alternately makes his keyboard sound like a music-box or a manic zither, a masterpiece of ingenious improvisation delivered by a master.

The Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp Major (1809) has won diverse adherents, from Claudio Arrau to Egon Petri. Beethoven himself expressed a partiality for its lyric fragments and often stunning harmonic progressions. Hungerford plays the four-measure Adagio cantabile as an upbeat to the graceful Allegro that proceeds in sonata-form. Transparency of touch marks Hungerford’s performance as the theme sojourns through various registers and dynamic shifts. The last movement, Allegro vivace, opens with trumpets and moves hectically through knotty scales and brilliant runs. A far cry from the Appassionata Sonata, this music still manages to alert our ears to a volatile personality behind the music.

The culmination of Beethoven’s two-movement sonata experiments lies in his Op. 111 C Minor Sonata (1822), which synthesizes a union of polar opposites. Hungerford opens (Maestoso) with pungent double-dotted chords that pave the way for the conflict that it will require the huge theme-and-variations movement to resolve. The passion of the ensuing Allegro’s momentum becomes relentless, except for pregnant pauses and poco ritente that intrude on a voracious energy. Hungerford makes this movement remind us of the Fifth Symphony. That the hurtling masses of sound resolve into a pianissimo C Major proves just as miraculous as the frenetic counterpoints and pungent stretti that led us there. If titanic intricacy marks the first movement, C Major simplicity dominates the Arietta and its manifold permutations of evolution.

If the Maestoso depicts an earth-bound agon, the expansive second movement details the various stages of spiritual transformation possible to an exalted soul. That the sublimity of the music may absorb wonderful wit occurs in Hungerford’s potent realization of the third variation, with its presentiments of American boogie-woogie.  Only variation five moves away to a foreign key, having followed an episode of trills, returning to the theme in its original form.  The uncanny blend of movement and stasis Hungerford achieves with ever lighter applications of diminuendo contrasted against wonderfully flowing arpeggios. The final evolution moves towards the dominant G, surrounded by trills and occasional peals of some distant tone that would call to Schumann. Despite the occasional crescendos, we feel the material world divested of its content, and a true apotheosis of the spirit flows from Hungerford. After the last chord and a much-hovering awe, the unanimous applause erupts for a mighty interpretation of this seminal opus.  

The Bach Prelude in E-flat Minor proffers another exploration of profound simplicity of expression, and the ubiquitous Bagatelle in A minor “Fur Elise” regains an original innocence.

—Gary Lemco




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