Sunday, April 22, 2018

Michal Hambourg

I wrote here about one of the greatest musicians I've ever known, the late Michal Hambourg. It was part of a long list of favorite recordings, and I'll replay the part about her below:
"The Hambourg Legacy"
Mark Hambourg, a peasant virtuoso from Eastern Europe who'd relocated to England, was the real deal. He was an early-recorded connection to the time when all this musty classical stuff was new and fresh and punk. Very well known in the early 20th century, Hambourg married in to Scottish nobility, and had a daughter, Michal - a prodigy who, in my opinion, was even better than him.

Michal was poised for stardom, but WWII interfered, and she never regained any career whatsoever. Rescued from obscurity in her 90's(!!) by Arbiter Records' Allan Evans, who'd recorded her on her home piano, with Liszt's walking stick mounted just above, on the wall. Arthritis cramped her technique some, but even if classical piano's not your thing, you'll instantly feel this is something else (listen to a free sample of her playing some Chopin that will make you cry). She sounds like she's IMPROVISING. No stiff, stodgy, polite, show-off piano this. Anyway, this record includes father, father + (young) daughter, and some modern recordings of just the daughter.
"The Hambourg Legacy" is out of print, but you can buy it on iTunes here.

Half Scottish nobility, half Eastern-European peasant Jew, Michal had all the majesty and all the soul; the roast pheasant as well as the chicken fat. Her pedigree traced directly to the great masters of 19th century music and she kept that flame alive for decade after decade, albeit in the most absolute obscurity. The essential loss of this necessary link and mammoth talent for a full half-century was a tragedy for her and for us, but Michal, naturally, found ways to contribute, working with gifted children and helping found the World Wildlife Fund, among other good works. Very late in life, she was rediscovered, but it was too late. There would be no concerts; no wider recognition.

But you, lucky ones, get to view the following. Here's the same Chopin from the second link above, along with video! Also with some wonderful Liszt and Mozart. This, for me, is what music aspires to be. Hardly anything comes close, even though, at age 78, Michal was far from her prime, her fingers arthritic and her energy diminished (see if you think it matters!).

I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon in Michal's living room, myself, a few years after this was recorded, and heard her play that same piano. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, you can visit Michal's living room, too. Do not miss this:

I managed to unearth the fan letter I'd written her, back in 2003 (just a bit before the events described here) which had earned me the lunch invitation (she cooked nearly as well as she played; again, half Scottish nobility and half Jewish peasant is sort of the ideal human amalgam):

Dear Ms. Hambourg,

It's not been the best year for me, but I just listened to your recording of Chopin's Etude in A-flat, and it makes me feel that life has richness and value. Your playing is too great to be measured by its therapeutic effect, of course, so please just accept this as my small personal testimonial!

I'm by no means a fitting messenger to deliver the following, but sometimes messages come from strange sources (plumbers, drug addicts, food critics, etc.). The message is: you are incredibly important for the world and you'll be remembered more than you imagine.

It can be helpful to tell people what they are.

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