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
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.
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.