The Russian pianist, Mark Hambourg, was born into a musical family. His father, Michael [Mikhail] Hambourg (1855-1916) was a pianist and a teacher. Mark studied with his father, made his debut in Moscow in 1888, at age 9. Then he went to Vienna to study with the celebrated pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky. It was Leschetizky who prepared Hambourg for his Vienna debut in 1894 with the Wiener Philharmoniker under Hans Richter, playing Chopin’s First Piano Concerto. The following year he made his first appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker playing Johannes Brahms’ First Piano Concerto - unknown to him until after the performance, the composer had been in attendance! Mark’s pianistic hero in the earliest phase of his career was Paderewski. Later he became a close friend of both Ferruccio Busoni and Moriz Rosenthal. He performed the titanic F. Busoni Piano Concerto under the baton of the composer and replaced him on tour with violinist Ysaÿe during 1901.
Mark Hambourg soon began performing as a concerto player throughout the major cities of Europe. Eventually he settled in London, England and, along with occasional orchestral engagements, he primarily focused on recital-giving, and toured all over the world.
Mark Hambourg performed a very wide repertoire ranging from Bach to contemporary, and winning acclaim for his zigeuner-like personality (as demonstrated in his recordings of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies and Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances). Among other works he was the dedicatee of F. Busoni’s forward-looking Sonatina seconda (1912) and claimed to have given the British premieres of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit (he also recorded Ondine for the first time) and Jeux d’eau, as well as of the transcription of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune by Leonard Borwick (which he also recorded). He recorded Falla’s Fantasia baetica in 1923, two years before Rubinstein gave its ‘official premiere’, and showed an affinity for Iberian and South American music through his advocacy of unfamiliar works by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Albéniz and Enrique Granados.
Between about 1909 and 1933, Mark Hambourg recorded copiously for the Gramophone Company (HMV). He made over 200 recordings for the gramophone between 1910 and 1935. Their quality is variable and suggests that he was essentially an artist dependent on the spontaneity of the moment. They also reveal his avowed dislike of the recording process. In the premiere recording of Ravel’s Sonatine, HMV forced him to fit the work onto two sides of a 78rpm disc, resulting in a rushed, abridged reading. For Mark, music was an essentially spontaneous, ephemeral art form that could not be adequately captured by the recording process. The music was in you: you offered it, and that was the end of that. Neither he nor his family kept copies of most of his recordings. Reissues of some of his recordings have appeared on compact discs from Pearl and from Arbiter. As well as recording for the gramophone, he also made some piano-roll recordings. His recorded legacy is notable in that he was one of the first pianists to record major concertos. In 1929 he recorded L.v. Beethoven's Third Concerto with Sir Malcolm Sargent, in which he uses Moscheles’ cadenzas. He also recorded Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and a movement of Schumann’s Piano Quintet (with Frank Bridge playing viola).
Mark Hambourg celebrated his 25th anniversary as a recording artist in 1934. Although the following year saw more recordings, they were to prove his final visit to the studio. His recording contract was terminated (along with those of Ignaz Friedman and Rosenthal) and his engagements reduced, not for any musical or commercial reason (his recordings had continued to sell well) but because of the change in the balance of power within the recording industry from the artist to the recording producer and manager. However, he continued to perform in public until the late 1950's. The National Sound Archive in London holds part of a BBC Prom performance of F. Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasia from 1954.
Mark Hambourg occupies a unique place in early 20th-century pianism, and was regarded by his contemporaries as an artist of the first rank. Er macht besser! (‘He does it better!’), exclaimed Ignaz Friedman in 1907. The pianist Joyce Hatto, well-known in her time as a F. Liszt advocate, saw him perform late in life: ‘He sat at the piano in a wheelchair and, although disabled, he gave a magnificent performance of the Schubert Wanderer Fantasia and the four Chopin Ballades. Nowadays, one often reads a sneering comment about Mark Hambourg. I suppose that it comes from him having recorded a great deal of salon musical encores. Yet his recordings of some L.v. Beethoven sonatas and the Third Piano Concerto, for example, show him to be a pianist of very considerable insight and refinement.’
Mark Hambourg wrote various didactic articles on piano technique and also several books, of which his reminiscences reveal a characteristic wit and humour. He published How to Play the Piano (Phildelphia, 1922), From Piano to Forte: A Thousand and One Notes (London, 1931), and The Eight Octave (London, 1951).
Mark Hambourg's younger brothers were also successful performing musicians. Jan (1882-1947) was a violinist and Boris (1885-1954) was a cellist. Mark Hambourg's daughter Michal (1919-2004) was also a pianist and for some time they played and recorded together as piano duo.