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Edition Hera

Josef HOFMANN (1876-1957)
Ungarisch, Op. 19, Nr. 1
Polnisch, Op. 19, Nr. 2 [3:44]
Impromptu, Op. 20, Nr. 1 [4:53]
Menuet, Op. 20, Nr. 2 [4:44]
Elégie, Op. 20, Nr. 3 [2:56]
VIII Preludes, Op. 30 [11:57]: Nr.1 in C-Dur / Nr.2 in a-moll / Nr.3 in G-Dur / Nr.4 in e-moll / Nr. 5 in D-Dur / Nr.6 in b-moll / Nr.7 in A-Dur / Nr.8 in As-Dur
Vision, Op. 40, Nr. 1 [4:22]
Jadis, Op. 40, Nr. 2 [2:55]
Nenien, Op. 40, Nr. 3 [6:02]
Kaleidoscope, Op. 40, Nr. 4 [4:35]
Valse Caprice, Op. 53 [5:07]
Composition under the Pseudonym "M. Dvorsky":
Impression pour piano Nr. 2 "L' Orient et l'Occident" [4:03] 
Impression pour piano Nr. 3 "Le Sanctuaire" [3:03]
Fabiana Biasini, piano.
Recorded in Patrych Sound Studios New York, NY, USA September 2005.
EDITION HERA HERA 02120 [61:32] 


I am reminded of a strange chronological connection. I have met a man who met a lady who was born two hundred years ago. My father-in-law, who was a machine gunner on the Somme was dandled by his great-grandmother who was born before the Battle of Waterloo. Past times can seem very distant or sometimes dates contrive to make them very close. And the composer of this CD is another case in point. I was amazed to discover that Josef Hofmann died the year after I was born. Yet he is credited with being the first major concert pianist to make a recording on one of Edison’s cylinders. Unfortunately they were lost in a fire in the composer’s house during the Great War. But the point is this. What a long way we have come – even in 1957 we had stereo and high fidelity, although Elvis was first released on 78s! Hofmann laid down his performance in 1887 as a child prodigy. It makes him seem very close to our era yet also very far removed. Yet this is probably the first CD that is explicitly given over to Josef Hofmann’s compositions as opposed to his playing. Up to the present time I can only find three or four of his pieces on CD: surely he would have been delighted.

Hofmann gave his début recital in the United States when he was aged 11. It was a little matter of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. One hard bitten music hack is reported to have said “This is no child, this is an artist and his piano playing is equal to anything the world has to offer.

This is not the place to give a biography of Josef Hofmann, but it is useful to put him into context. When Rachmaninov was once asked who were the greatest pianists alive he replied, "Well, there’s Hofmann, and there’s me!" Modesty indeed – but it says a deal for Hofmann! It is primarily as a pianist that he is remembered: he once played at 21 consecutive concerts and played 355 pieces without repeating a single work. But all this is hardly surprising - he had studied with two the greatest pianist of his time – Moritz Moszkowski and Anton Rubinstein.

But it is with Hofmann the composer that we are concerned. His first work was a Mazurka which was written when the composer was aged 4! Alas it is not included on this CD. Many works were written under the pseudonym of Michel Dvorsky. And there was humour here. Dvorsky is the Polish language equivalent of Hofmann – ‘courtyard man.’ Apparently the composer put about that this Dvorsky was a young recluse living in the South of France who modestly sent his latest works to the pianist for evaluation.

But on to the music. My first impression of this repertoire is that it is quite an undiscovered treasure: once popular music that had fallen into desuetude. Music that was quite manifestly written to explore the composer’s extensive technique. Yet it is not all ‘hard’ music. I know a couple of his pieces that even I can play. Stylistically at least, the bottom line is that Hofmann was a romantic. There is no doubt that many of his ‘latest’ compositions must have seemed old-fashioned to those who knew the works of Scriabin or Debussy. But fortunately listeners and most critics no longer look down their noses at romantic and post-romantic music. We can sit back and enjoy this programme with impunity.

It is not necessary to describe in detail all the works on this CD. The programme is an impressive selection of different forms and styles and technical difficulties. For example, some of the somewhat reflective and sometimes achingly beautiful Preludes are not beyond the gift of the legendary ‘gifted amateur.’ Yet the opening work, the Ungarisch, is a virtuosic piece – one that reveals just how impressive Hofmann’s technique must have been. Kaleidoscope is another dazzling number. Goodness knows how Fabiana Biasini fits all the notes in. This is romantic piano music at its very best.

Do not be put off by the sentimental titles of some of these pieces. For example the Impression for Piano No.2 ‘East & West’ nods towards Debussy. And the Sanctuary is a little gem that owes more to Rachmaninov than Liszt.

Yet do not be misled - Hofmann is not Chopin, Liszt or Rachmaninov. He defines the romantic spirit very much on his own terms.

Fabiana Biasini has done a fine job in unearthing a number of these pieces. She was bitten with the Hofmann bug when she came across a recording of the composer playing his own stunning Kaleidoscope. After much work she researched the catalogue and was able to record many of these works. A brief look at the cover reveals that most of these numbers are either world premiere recordings or are receiving there first ‘modern’ recording. In addition Biasini has used a contemporary (to Hofmann) Steinway piano for extra authenticity.

The sound recording is fully worthy of the superb playing of these forgotten works. The CD feels good – it certainly looks like a quality product. I do wish that the programme notes had been a little more extensive- for example no dates are given for any of the pieces. But this aside it is a great addition to the repertoire and deserves to be explored by all those listeners who love romantic piano music that is well written and beautifully played.

John France



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