Between 1965 and his death in a 1977 car accident Bruce Hungerford recorded 22 out of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas for Vanguard that count among the most stylish and intelligent interpretations one can find. The main program of this previously unpublished July 29, 1965 recital from the Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth replicates repertoire that Hungerford eventually would record in the studio, yet the presence of an audience arguably elicits added breadth and spontaneity.
For example, the F-sharp major sonata finale’s rapid major and minor key alternations are timed to more humorous effect, the “Pathétique” sonata outer movements reveal a larger number of bass lines brought to the fore, and the Op. 27 No. 1’sRead more Allegro molto vivace loosens up with a giddy, Schnabel-like abandon that Hungerford slightly tempered in the studio. If Op. 79’s Presto alla tedesca is a shade stiff and square, the Vivace’s playful simplicity and suppleness again evokes Schnabel’s still-unrivaled paradigm.
If Schnabel enveloped Op. 111’s first-movement Allegro con brio in a headlong, sweeping haze, Hungerford projects comparable energy while clearly untangling the gnarly counterpoint. The pianist’s Arioso distinguishes itself with a muted, spaciously sculpted theme, unified tempo relationships from one variation to the next, precise yet never rigid articulation, and long chains of trills that are so beautiful that you don’t want them to end! For encores, Hungerford plays a slow, grim, and rivetingly rhythmic Prelude in E-flat minor from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, followed by a simple, direct, and understated Beethoven Für Elise.
The only drawback to this recital concerns the dry, overmodulated sonics, which suggest that someone had turned the tape recorder input levels up excessively high, or placed the microphones too close to the piano, while the audience applause seems to come from another venue. After Hungerford finished Op. 111, the audience waited 10 seconds before applauding for about two minutes. I can understand the documentary purpose of preserving such an audience response, but I suspect most listeners will bypass it and go directly to the encores, as I did.
Ultimately this release will appeal more to specialists with a strong interest in Hungerford than general audiences, but anyone who cares about the Beethoven sonatas will gain insights from this pianist’s artistry. Producer Donald Isler, a Hungerford pupil and an excellent pianist in his own right, contributes informative and affectionate booklet notes.