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These recordings made between 1910 and 1935 evoke a bygone age, a time when the pianist came first. For Hambourg, a composer’s score was a springboard for every personalised excess; yet, through so many muddles, approximations and grand-standing, a charm and character peep through intermittently. There are flashes of a poetic impulse in the second ideas of both Schumann’s Aufschewung and Novelette No 1, and genuine affection in Dvořák’s Humoresque and the Gluck- Sgambati Mélodie. These are moments to set against a grotesque trivialisation of Debussy’s ‘Clair de lune’ and an unforgivably cavalier way with Poulenc’s Novelette No 1 (try Moura Lympany for a poise and elegance unknown to Hambourg). Indeed, it would be true to say that Hambourg in the French repertoire is a mismatch since the common denominator of Debussy, Ravel and Fauré is finesse. There is no ‘shimmer of harmony’ (Paul Crossley) in Ravel’s ‘Ondine’ and the brief recitative before the close is flicked aside, suggesting that Hambourg never read the poems by Aloysius Bertrand, the inspiration for Gaspard. In Moszkowski’s ultra-virtuoso Etude in G-flat there is a reminder that an ability to skitter across the keyboard is hardly the same thing as a comprehensive technique, and the unseemly rush through Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses is a far cry from a long-cherished recording by Monique Haas.

Hambourg’s repertoire consists largely of lollipops and pot-boilers, very much in the fashion of the time. In conclusion, what makes these discs invaluable is the sense they provide of changing fashions and attitudes; something all genuine students of piano-playing should study. The letter may be flaky but the spirit is undeniable and APR’s transfers are exemplary.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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