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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




Josef Hofmann (1876-1957)
The Complete Josef Hofmann Volume 6 - The Casimir Hall Recital
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Sonata Op. 27 No. 2 Moonlight (1801)
Plus three performances of the First Movement recorded 1916 and 1944
Sonata Op. 53 Waldstein (1803-04)
Piano Concerto No. 4 Op. 58 (1805-06)
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Nocturne in F Sharp Op. 15 No. 2 (1837)
Nocturne in B Op. 9 No. 3 (1837)
Waltz in A Flat Op. 42
Waltz in E Flat Op. 18
Minute Waltz Op. 64 No. 1
Polonaise in E Flat Minor Op. 26 No. 2 (1826)
Ballade No. 4 in F Minor Op. 52 (1831-42)
Josef HOFMANN (1876-1957)

Kaleidoskop Op. 40 No. 4
Penguine
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Kreisleriana Op. 16 (1838)
Zygmunt STOJOWSKI (1870-1946)

Caprice Orientale Op. 10 No. 2
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Moment Musicale Op. 94 No. 3 arr. Godowsky (1822-38)
Josef Hofmann, piano
Unnamed Orchestra conducted by John Barbirolli
Recorded 1916-1944
MARSTON 52014-2 [2 CDs: 149.02]
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The Fifth volume in Marston’s Hofmann series took over the series from VAI where it had languished awhile. Volume Six takes in more pianistic brilliance from the Cadillac Hour broadcast of 1936 as well as the recital that gives the slimline double its name, the Casimir Hall Recital of April 1938, which forms the bulk of the set. For good measure it adds – no small addition – the Fourth Beethoven Concerto in the 1941 broadcast conducted by John Barbirolli. The discs conclude with three different performances of the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata – two different takes from a Columbia session in 1916 and a Bell Telephone Hour broadcast from 1944.

I reviewed Volume Five recently and what strikes one so forcefully was the sheer command of Hofmann, the depth of tone and the quasi-improvisatory freedom he employed. This is quite apart from the beauty of his tone and its immaculate production, its architectural strength. As one of the elite pianists of the century these are some of the greatest survivals in broadcast history, all the more so as the acoustic 1924 Brunswicks were the last commercial discs he ever recorded despite numerous invitations from a variety of recording companies. Some of the results of those test records can be heard in Volume Five. Even so the variability of some of the performances is curious and, as ever with Hofmann, fascinating. His Beethoven was always controversial and has stimulated contentious debate both pro and contra. Indeed Marston’s note includes an article by Gregor Benko entitled Hofmann’s Beethoven and its Critics in which two eminent critics, Bryce Morrison and Harris Goldsmith, are soundly chastised for daring to decry Hofmann’s interpretations. So it is with a certain degree of timidity that I say that it seems to me that the big rubati and constant tempo fluctuations in the first movement of the Moonlight – from the Cadillac Hour of 1936 - will not be to all tastes, even to those mindful of historical performance practice. The Allegretto is rather on the flippant side and the finale is full of vigorous and massive attacks: altogether a highly idiosyncratic and deeply personalised reading. It’s always interesting to hear Hofmann play some modulating bars as he leaves one piece and before launching into the next – a relic of previous performance history. I admired his Chopin A flat Waltz from the same concert – full of elegance, elasticity and superbly carved inner voicings; the D flat Waltz is correspondingly dramatic and writ large.

The Casimir Hall Recital at the Curtis Institute of which Hofmann was for many years Director is a fascinating document. It opens here with the Waldstein Sonata, which again, like the Moonlight, is a temperamental and wilful affair, full of tempo fluctuations once more and some rhetorical flourishes. His Kreisleriana is full of interest though; splendid accents and drama, for example, in the second (he programmed only six). The first disc ends with more Chopin – there is some shatter in the Polonaise in E flat minor but not enough to distract from Hofmann’s strong attacks. In the Nocturne in B some of his runs can sound rather decorative and unfeeling – it’s also quite quick and cool – though his left hand touch is really truly beautiful. The second disc picks up where the first ended with more Chopin – an energetic and aggressive Valse Brillante, with rather metallic attacks, maybe over emphasised by the recording. It continues with the Nocturne in B – rather détaché phrasing to begin with and a considerable amount of rubato before some venomous attacks and incendiary bass notes incinerate the piece. The Chopin-Hofmann Minute Waltz is vitiated rather by some acetate whine but features the quasi-improvisatory quality so admired in Hofmann, whilst Stojowski’s Caprice Orientale is certainly a passionate slice of exotica in these hands. When it comes to the Schubert-Godowsky Moment Musicale Hofmann brings out left hand melodies and highlights individual notes to characteristic effect.

The Fourth Beethoven Concerto receives some arresting support in the shape of John Barbirolli here conducting an unnamed orchestra (wasn’t it the New York Philharmonic?). Hoffman opens briskly, Barbirolli offering a pliable orchestral patina strong on string moulding. Hofmann reaches an apogee of delicacy in his right hand in the first movement but the idiosyncratic cadenza, which rises to a peak of fury, is hardly the last word in Beethovenian subtlety. By contrast his responses to the orchestral statements in the second movement are very slow indeed and some peculiarities or fruitful idiosyncrasies, take your pick accompany his phrasing in the Rondo finale. The set concludes with the three Moonlight Sonata first movements. There is a gross discrepancy between the takes recorded for Columbia on 13th October 1916 – one lasting 5.04 and the other 4.12. The first sounds measured and correspondingly quite impressive, the second sounds hurried with abrupt accents. The third performance comes from a much later 1944 broadcast – and lasts 5.40 which is rather more in line with the complete performance recorded in March 1936 for the Cadillac Hour, which began the set.

After the many highlights of Volume 5 I admit I found this volume frustratingly uneven. Amidst the many splendours and tonal beauties, the conjunction of superb right hand and active left, the over-emphases and digital warmongering frequently verged on the uncontrolled. And yet no one who professes to admire Hofmann could afford to be without these discs that manage so well to preserve the musical testament of so exciting, so unpredictable and so great a musician. Whatever demons affected him in his later years no one could deny his place in the pantheon.

Jonathan Woolf


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