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E.T.A. HOFFMANN (1776-1822)
Quintet for Harp and String Quartet in C minor, AV 24 (c. 1806) [19:44]
Sonata for Fortepiano in A major, AV 22 (c. 1805)
Sonata for Fortepiano in F minor, AV 27 (c. 1807)
Grand Trio in E major, AV 52 (1809)
Nasumi Nagasawa (single action pedal harp) (AV 24); Beni Araki (fortepiano) (AV 22, 27, 52); Hoffmeister Quartet (AV 24); Trio Margaux (AV 52)
rec. Ev. Grunewaldkirche, Berlin, November 2007 (AV 24, 22, 27); February 2006 (AV 52)


Experience Classicsonline

Mention Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann’s legacy to music and many listeners will think of the bizarre and imaginative stories Hoffmann wrote which inspired Jacques Offenbach’s grand opera, Tales of Hoffmann. Many will think also of the quirky Christmas fantasy set as a ballet in Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Others will think of how Hoffmann’s sense of the fantastic impressed upon Schumann in his Kreisleriana, again directly inspired by the author’s literary work. Some might even think about how Hoffmann and his colleague Jean Paul seemed to find their full musical counterpart only in the music of Gustav Mahler almost a century later.

But this new release from Profil’s Günter Hänssler Edition serves as a reminder that Hoffmann was himself a practitioner of music, nor was he a delusional dabbler along the lines of Friedrich Nietzsche. The chamber works on this disc, including a harp quintet, a trio and two piano sonatas demonstrate both fluency and assurance in received forms. It all testifies to Hoffmann’s romantic leanings as well as his distinctive sense of irony, and deserves to be heard more often. 

The first work here is the Quintet for Harp and String Quartet in C minor, which dates from around 1806, when Hoffmann was making his living as a lawyer by day and writing music in spare moments. Already an accomplished writer of music criticism, Hoffmann’s move toward literary writing was to start soon after this, and one can sense the forming of a vivid and original creative spirit in this music. I rush to point that out specifically for those who have been less than overwhelmed (as I was myself) by Hoffmann’s Miserere in B minor, which was available in a prominent recording on Koch/Schwann in the 1980s. That work is unfailingly pleasing and well-steeped within the world of Haydn, late Mozart and early Beethoven, and never commits a gauche turn of phrase. Its sheer professionalism does point up, however, its indebtedness to conservative models. 

This quintet, however, is more volatile, daring to risk more and create a more personal sound world. Unfortunately, as Klaus Harer’s informative booklet notes tell us, Hoffmann was never able to get the work published. Rejected as too difficult, the work has languished in obscurity ever since. The opening Allegro moderato has plenty of poise, despite being permeated with a restless, expressive unease. The creative integration of themes is impressive and compelling. The period instruments used here by harpist Masumi Nagasawa and the Hoffmeister Quartet (Ulla Bundies and Christoph Heidemann, violin; Aino Hildebrandt, viola; Martin Seemann, cello) are gloriously clear and colorful, captured in gorgeous recorded sound. Like Mozart in his Flute and Harp Concerto, Hoffmann basically wrote the harp part in pianistic figurations. Nagasawa handles it all fluidly, interweaving with the often harmonically bold strings. The slow movement is rapt, subject to exquisite changes of mood. The propulsive and ominous finale returns to the mood of the first movement, ending the work sternly. 

The two fortepiano sonatas featured here are less forward-looking pieces, though they too contain moments of piquant surprise. The Sonata in A starts with a very Mozartian Andante, progressing on to a more Beethovenian pair of minuets and a more brilliant finale. This is the only instrumental work Hoffmann had published during his lifetime, in Breslau, by Elsner, later a teacher of Chopin. The collection it was published in, however, did not circulate out of the provinces, and the work soon sank into obscurity. Hoffmann was unable to get any of his other sonatas published, even the striking Sonata in F minor, which starts with a wonderfully angular and theatrical Adagio e con gravita as introduction to a dramatic and eccentric fugue, marked Allegro. Hoffmann impressively combines romantic wildness with rigorous structure. The immediately following Larghetto makes an impact by being contrastingly plain spoken and direct, though it soon explores a range of moods, too. The brief Allegro finale follows without a pause, resuming the fugal material of the first movement to round it off. This vivid and unsettling piece, only ten minutes long, would prove an interesting alternative to hear on more pianists’ program. Beni Araki plays both sonatas with flair and imagination on a delightfully tangy, even twangy, fortepiano. 

The longest, latest and greatest work here is Hoffmann’s Grand Trio in E major from 1809, the first year Hoffmann had a breakthrough literary success. It opens with an attractive cello solo, followed by a formal statement of the home key and theme which does nothing whatsoever to prepare one for the harmonic instability that starts a mere thirty seconds in. To be sure, this music hints in between its neoclassical gestures at the visionary ideas which were starting to emerge in his literary work. One typical example is at 4:55, where the piano sounds like it’s about to go into one of those typical, satisfying trills to end a phrase. But Hoffmann quietly pulls the rug out from underneath the phrase, suddenly sending it off in a new direction. Little revelations like that abound in this restless music which is so often Beethovenian, yet could never have been written by him. Indeed, this work is so accomplished, it makes one wonder what music may have lost through the twin events of Hoffmann’s concentration on literature and his death at the age of 46, precluding any later return to music. The succeeding scherzo is delightfully spiky and strange, honoring Hoffmann’s Beethovenian model while also looking forward to later composers like Schubert and Schumann. No mean feat, considering that it was written in 1809! The last movement opens with an Adagio introduction in place of a slow movement. It is a heartfelt, lyrical passage which gradually shades regretful, setting up the brilliant burst of sunlight of the Allegro vivace, high spirited music which covers a lot of ground, alternating between galloping boisterously and more serenely working in a motivic nod to the Finale of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. It builds up to a dizzying passage of hurtling notes, which slyly settles down, only to close with a sudden sprint to the end. Exhilarating music, played with verve by the Trio Margaux, which consists of Araki on fortepiano, Kathrin Tröger on violin, and Martin Seemann on cello (which role he plays in the Hoffmeister Quartet, too). This piece is a major discovery. 

These performances are persuasive advocates for Hoffmann’s forgotten musical genius, and we’re lucky to not only have these pieces so well performed, but recorded in perfect sound, rich and colorful yet never overbearing. Bravo to Profil and everyone involved with this release. It changed me from dismissing Hoffmann to being a true believer.

Mark Sebastian Jordan


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