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Josef Hofmann (1876-1957). The Complete Josef Hofmann Volume 5
Josef HOFMANN (1876-1957)

Berceuse Op 20 No 5 – 2 versions one with Efrem Zimbalist, violin
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Waltz in A Flat Op 42 No3
Nocturne Op 27 No 2
Sonata No 3 Op 58 – First Movement
Polonaise in A Military
Nocturne Op 15 No 2
Andante Spianato e Grande Polonaise
Berceuse in D Flat Op 57
Waltz in D Flat Minute
Nocturne Op 9 No 2
Chant Polonaise My Joys Op 74 No 12 arr Franz Liszt
Chant Polonaise The maiden’s Wish Op 74 No 1 arr Franz Liszt
Waltz in E Flat Op 18
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Sonata Op 31 No 3 – Second Movement
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Song without words Op 4 No 4 Spinning Song
Rondo Capriccioso e Op 14
Anatole LIADOV (1855-1914)

Musical Snuff Box
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)

Sonata No 1 Op 24 – Fourth Movement Perpetual Motion
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Liebestraum No 3 in A Flat
Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Prelude in C Sharp Minor op 3 No 2
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

March Op 12 No 1
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Suite Bergamasque: Clair de lune
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)

Orfeo ed Euridice – Melodie
Josef Hofmann, piano
Test Recordings, Recitals, Broadcasts, Home Recording. Recorded 1935 – c 1948.
MARSTON 52004-2
[2 CDs 64.11 and 70.54]


Marston has taken over (from VAI) the complete Hofmann series, here reaching volume five. His last commercial recordings were made for Brunswick in 1924 and despite numerous invitations from companies no further discs appeared in his lifetime. He did though record tests for RCA Victor and HMV in 1935 and for Columbia in 1940 so he wasn’t implacably opposed to recording per se and indeed – most unusually for a musician of his generation – went so far as making a large number of home recorded acetates of his own playing, of which one example, the Gluck-Sgambati Melodie from Orfeo, is presented here.

So Volume Five is necessarily a disparate collection comprising live recital material, test records, live radio broadcasts and that solitary home-recorded piece. Many of the works are repeated – Hofmann would play the same things at each of his tests – and a number are abruptly cut short and so its appeal is clearly going to be limited to those with a particular interest in Hofmann. Those with a more general enthusiasm should be directed to the published acoustic sides but specialists and collectors alike will need this two CD set for the rich rewards afforded, in particular by the earlier performances. These contrast, sometimes forcefully, with the performances made during the pianist’s period of decline – prompted by his wife’s illness, the problems he experienced at the Curtis Institute of which he had been a Founding member, head of the Piano faculty and finally Director (he resigned in 1938) and also compounded by his alcoholism.

Hofmann was a romantic virtuoso almost nonpareil. The earliest recordings here, from 1935 and 1938, show his astonishing array of gifts – architectural surety, astounding finger technique, textual depth, the limpidity and sheer beauty of tone, the infectious nature of his playing and the naturalness of its application – which embodies a quasi-improvisatory aspect. Some of these were inevitably compromised during his later years but much here is simply imperishable. The discs start with Hofmann’s own Berceuse, one for solo piano and the other in his own arrangement for violin, here played by Curtis associate Efrem Zimbalist. The solo version from circa 1935 is very beautiful with a characteristic Hofmannesque limpidity and delicacy of touch, full of finesse. With Zimbalist little is added. It’s always interesting to hear him, and I’m an admirer of long standing but his nobility of utterance can’t really compensate for an endemically slow vibrato. With the 1935 RCA Victor tests we come to some scintillating music making. The Chopin A Flat Waltz has some beautifully rounded left hand, and is colourful and life enhancing; it starts quite slowly but builds to a magnificent climax. In the D Flat Nocturne there is perfect articulation in the left hand whilst the right engages in some legato-staccato descending runs; the tone is steady. The first movement of the Chopin Sonata shows very sparing use of the pedal with a comparable ease of execution and direction, Hofmann making some slight rubati along the way.

One would expect little else but the playful and infectious command he evinces in the Military Polonaise with its perfectly "placed" bass, pedal under control and never over indulged. Whilst he may lighten and inflect the line one always feels with him here a sense of almost classical responsibility. The A Flat Waltz performance of April 1935 is especially majestic with its admixture of playfulness and wit and a wizardly control as he accelerates; one has ample opportunity to consider Hofmann’s approach to the Waltz because there are five different takes of the A Flat as well as a minute’s torso from a Columbia test of 1940. Of all of them the 19 April (matrix CS 88962-1) strikes me as the greatest. In the Scherzo from Beethoven’s E Flat Sonata Op 31/3 he generates galvanic momentum treasurable to hear especially in the light of the rather ambiguous reception afforded his Beethoven playing over the years. The Philadelphia Golden Jubilee Concert from April 1938 is a momentous event and there is much that is remarkable about the Andante Spianato e Grande Polonaise but here and elsewhere he can snatch at phrases a little which can be disruptive. The Columbia tests of 1940 are a very disparate affair. Only Liadov’s little Musical Snuff Box is played complete – the other items break down at around the minute mark and the Ford Sunday Evening Hour is variably recorded. Still the E Flat Nocturne from that broadcast is splendid, with momentum and weight of tone held in perfect accord. He seems to lose his way in Liebestraum from that broadcast and the Bell Telephone Hour items in truth don’t really show him at his best. To recall those great qualities that made him so wonderful a musician we end with the home-recorded Gluck Melodie – a wistful end, with captivating tone, to a miscellaneous but profoundly important set.

Hofmann had made a recording as early as 1887, Thomas Edison having famously invited the ten year old prodigy to the studios where he recorded some cylinders (now lost). We can’t go back that far and nor can we quite recapture Hofmann at his legendary best but these discs, so finely presented and transferred, so aptly documented, manage even now to conjure up the still vital spirit of the man that even Rachmaninov admired and whose advice he sought. And in the annals of pianism that’s the highest kind of praise.

Jonathan Woolf

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