Franz Anton Hoffmeister was born in Rottenburg am Neckar, Germany in 1754 and at the age of fourteen went to Vienna to read law. Following his studies, however, he decided on a career in music. By the 1780s he had become one of the city’s most popular composers with an extensive and varied catalogue of works to his credit.
However, Hoffmeister’s reputation today rests equally on his activities as a music publisher. By 1785 he had established one of Vienna’s first music-publishing businesses, second only to Artaria & Co, which had ventured into the field five years earlier. He published his own works as well as those of many important composers of the time, including Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Clementi, Albrechtsberger, Dittersdorf and Wanhal (Vanhal), and who were also among his personal friends. Mozart’s String Quartet in D, ‘Hoffmeister’, K 499, was published by Franz Anton, and he was addressed in a letter by Beethoven as ‘my most beloved brother’.
Hoffmeister’s publishing activities reached a peak in 1791 but thereafter he appeared to have devoted more time to composition, with most of his operas composed and staged during the early 1790s. This, however, combined with an apparent lack of business sense, led to his subsequent noticeable decline as a publisher.
He wrote a number of works for keyboard with another instrument, notably the flute, while some twenty sonatas and sonatinas are also listed for keyboard alone. The Sonata in A
, described as ‘pour Fortepiano ou Clavecin’, has been initially dated to about 1785, and is conservative in design. There's a sonata-form opening ‘Allegro’ followed by a slightly improvisatory-sounding ‘Adagio’ in the tonic minor (A minor), with a jaunty ‘Presto’ finale providing an effective finish.
The Sonata in G major
again is hardly ground-breaking, although the development section does show more interesting harmonic juxtapositions and modulations. The ‘Poco Adagio’ slow movement is pleasantly lyrical at times with cantilena melodies sung in the right hand over a rippling left-hand hand accompaniment, and where the writing owes a debt to the composer’s earlier eight or so operas. Again there is almost something of a concerted operatic-finale to the triple-metre closing Rondo, with its effective use of silences, and short recitative passages, all of which makes this one of the most attractive movements of the CD thus far.
The Sonata in B flat
is again cast very much in the style of the times – indeed the sleeve-note confirms ‘how his (Hoffmeister’s) sonatas might be mistaken or even misappropriated as works of Haydn’. The middle ‘Adagio’ in the relative minor (G minor) has some melodic originality and interest, and still with a nod in the direction of the composer’s operatic side. The rondo-finale is essentially a lively ‘Presto’ in 6/8 ‘hunting’ mode, though with moments of repose along the way. This gives it a more expressive and sensitive feel overall than a mere showy conclusion – and there’s a little surprise to come at the very end.
The final work is a set of Variations in C
which certainly make far greater demands on the performer, particularly in coping with a variety of scale-patterns, from double-thirds to the less frequently-encountered scales in similar motion, but two octaves apart. While some of this initially brings to mind Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 2 No. 3 in the same key, it also looks forwards to the writing of Hummel and his later contemporaries. The sleeve-note comments that ‘The Variations
bring the present recording to a final climax’. This may well be true overall, as there is probably more substance and individuality in the final work, than the three sonatas themselves. The ending is effective, though perhaps rather understated for a work with recognisable virtuosic tendencies. Structurally speaking Hoffmeister’s Variations
are in the manner of Handel’s ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’ set. There figurations and note-divisions are the order of the day, rather than harmonic manipulation as is the case in parts of Brahms’s ‘Handel’ Variations, which is only to be expected in a work from the Romantic period.
The sleeve-notes are reasonably informative, although the English set by Keith Anderson isn’t a translation of the German ones by Gottfried Franz Kasparek that follow on. While Anderson’s are slightly more concerned with biographical details, Kasparek’s are musically more perceptive, and his comments, for example, on the sonatas (albeit in German) are more helpful from the historical and musical standpoints. It seems a pity that his weren’t translated into English, as is often the case, rather than apparently commissioning an additional set in English.
In assessing whether this new CD of world première recordings really adds a great deal to the catalogue, there are a number of points to consider. In terms of originality, these works could be mistaken for examples by Haydn. However, when you consider that they are roughly contemporary with the Austrian composer’s last four sonatas (Hob. XVI: 49 in E flat, 50 in C, 51 in D, and 52 in E flat major respectively), while the difference isn’t quite chalk and cheese, Haydn’s would rank more as a finely-matured Cheddar, or its national equivalent. Hoffmeister’s would surely be somewhat further down the pecking order.
The problem emanates partly from the name of the label itself, ‘Grand Piano’. According to its publicity blurb – essentially it’s part of HNH International Ltd that produces Naxos recordings – it has, since its launch in 2012, ‘quickly gained a reputation for producing high quality recordings of rare keyboard gems’. It goes on to say, ‘Dedicated to the exploration of undiscovered piano repertoire, the label specialises in multi-volume recordings and complete cycles of piano works by many lesser-known composers, whose output might otherwise have remained unknown and unrecorded’. Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this laudable philosophy, even if it might often depend on one man’s gem being another man’s pebble. While the label has already released some significant piano music CDs, these were always intended for the ‘grand piano’ whereas Hoffmeister’s weren’t.
Yes, it’s good to have some of his keyboard music on disc now, with the promise of at least a second volume to come. For it to have, perhaps, the desired impact, it really cries out to be played on a contemporary keyboard instrument. This could then identify Hoffmeister more as his own man, rather than someone who sounds like Haydn, but isn’t. Performing it on a full concert grand admittedly does something for the dynamic range, but it can’t make Hoffmeister’s music any bigger or more gem-like than it is, however well-played and recorded. Here, there are definitely no complaints at all. Biliana Tzinlikova’s admirable performances and well-honed technique, especially in the decidedly more tricky Variations
, might just rescue the rest of the CD from relative obscurity.
Philip R Buttall