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Franz Anton HOFFMEISTER (1754-1812)
Concerto for Viola and Orchestra in B Flat major: Allegro con spirito [8.05], Poco Adagio [6.53], Rondo [3.39]
Concerto for Viola and Orchestra in D major: Allegro [8.11], Adagio [7.01], Rondo [3.48]
Twelve studies for Solo Viola: Etude No. 1 [4.33], Etude No. 2 [1.39], Etude No. 3 1.22], Etude No. 4 [4.42], Etude No. 5 [3.30], Etude No. 6 [4.06], Etude No. 7 [2.54], Etude No. 8 [3.29], Etude No. 9 [2.21], Etude No. 10 [1.31], Etude No. 11, Etude No. 12 [2.57]
Ashan Pillai (viola)
Gulbenkian Orchestra/Christopher Hogwood
Recorded at the Gulbenkian Hall, Lisbon, 3-5 September 2003.DDD
OEHMS CLASSICS OC 334 [76’13"]

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Despite being a prolific composer who wrote an estimated 66 symphonies as well as innumerable concertos, chamber works and operas, Hoffmeister is not particularly well represented by recordings in the current catalogue. Many of those that have been available in the past are now deleted. I doubt whether any of his works have recently been heard in the concert hall. Thus, one comes to these viola concertos and studies completely afresh. M admiration for Hoffmeister steadily increased as I listened to this disc. It doesn’t get off to a particularly good start, commencing with the early Viola concerto in B flat major. This is an elegant Haydnesque work, beautifully played by the Sri Lankan Ashan Pillai, but for me doesn’t reach new heights. In fact it sounds like a work by a overly prolific composer who didn’t necessarily ponder long over his subject matter! It is clear, in fact, that Hoffmeister was very aware of his Viennese audience’s proclivities and was an unlikely contender to "rock the boat" in the same way that his younger compatriot, Ludwig van Beethoven, was able to do in the period following Hoffmeister’s death in 1812. The second concerto, however, is a much more interesting and challenging work, rivalling in many respects his better known contemporaries, Haydn and Mozart. Both concertos are similarly laid out for a small string orchestra with two oboes and two horns, opening with an Allegro of about 8 minutes followed by an Adagio of 7 minutes and concluding with a rather brief Rondo of about 4 minutes. Christopher Hogwood and the Gulbenkian Orchestra provide adroit accompaniment to the excellent viola playing but never seem completely involved in the performance, with the accompaniment coming across as a little tired at times.

It is the viola studies which emerge as the most enlightening works on this disc, leading me to wonder whether Hoffmeister knew the unaccompanied ’cello suites of Bach. Given the fact Hoffmeister was also a publisher, and counted Bach’s works amongst his publications, it is fairly likely that he did. Composed perhaps 30 years later, these works certainly have resonances with the Bach canon, although they are far less challenging for the player. Having said that, the works certainly favour the listener and retained my interest over their duration of more than 30 minutes. It would be difficult to select a favourite as all are very accessible. However I would suggest listening to Number 6 to get an idea of the charm and invention Hoffmesiter deploys in these studies. As with all these studies, it is exquisitely played with radiant viola tone.

It is pertinent to ask why a composer such as Hoffmeister who knew and admired - and was probaby admired in turn by - Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, amongst others, is now almost totally neglected. Is he really so much inferior? Richard Eckstein, who wrote the excellent accompanying notes, includes a quotation at the end which runs as follows: "At a distance you only hear of the leading lights in art and often people are content just to know their names. So once you get closer to these starry heavens, and see those of the second and third magnitude also beginning to shimmer and each one emerging independently of the overall constellation, then the world becomes wider and art becomes richer." This apt remark by Hoffmeister’s contemporary Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is relevant for today’s listeners and their curiosity about a large proportion of composers from the 18th to the 20th century (and particularly those totally unjustly neglected English composers of the early twentieth century!). Archives all over the world are filled with the results of 200 years of the exuberant desire to compose, and modern man is only slowly becoming aware of this important legacy. Would that the concert promoters would wrench themselves from their obeisance and obsession with the so-called ‘leading lights’ and allow us to at least occasionally hear works such as these!

Em Marshall

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