|About this Recording
8.111326 - HOFMANN, Josef: Historical Recordings (1916-1923)
Great Pianists: Josef Hofmann (1876-1957)
Josef Hofmann was born in 1876, at Podgorze, near the Polish city of Kraków. Both of his parents were musicians, his mother a singer of light opera and his father a conductor of the Kraków theatre and professor of piano and harmony at the Warsaw Conservatory. Young Josef was, however, a phenomenally gifted child who learnt the basics of music at the age of three, gave his début at the Warsaw Opera House at five, and when he played again in Warsaw at the age of seven was heard by the great Russian pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein. At Rubinstein’s urging, the German impresario Hermann Wolff wanted to manage the boy and send him on a tour of Europe. Casimir, Josef’s father, would not allow this until the boy was nine years old. This amazing child prodigy then played in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Britain. He played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in Berlin with the Berlin Philharmonic, and in London performed the same work for the Royal Philharmonic Society.
The following year, in 1887, a tour of America was arranged for the young Hofmann. He was to play eighty concerts, performing four times a week. Wherever he played the eleven-year-old boy caused a sensation with his playing and improvising. After three months of performances which included fifty recitals, seventeen of which were at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children stepped in citing the boy’s fragile health. Josef had been offered $10,000 for the American tour, but a benefactor offered Casimir $50,000 on the condition that Josef would not appear in public until he was eighteen years of age. The rest of the tour was cancelled and the family returned to Germany. In Berlin Hofmann took some lessons from the pianist and composer Moritz Moszkowski, but it was in 1892, when Hofmann was sixteen, that he became a private pupil of Anton Rubinstein, who had himself been an exploited child prodigy and was by then the greatest living pianist. Once a week in winter, and twice a week in summer, Hofmann travelled from Berlin to Dresden to study with Rubinstein. During this two-year period he had around forty lessons with the great master, later describing the relationship he formed with Rubinstein as ‘the most important event of my life’.
At his adult début in Hamburg Hofmann played Rubinstein’s Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 70, with the composer conducting, giving such a wonderful performance that Rubinstein declared there was nothing left to teach him. That was in March, 1894; Rubinstein returned to Russia and died in November. Hofmann played in England in June and November of 1894, and from then on led the life of a touring virtuoso for forty years, playing in Russia, Europe, North and South America and Mexico. He was appointed head of the piano department of Curtis Institute of Music in 1924, later becoming the director from 1927 to 1938. He took American citizenship in 1936 and remained in the United States where he died in Los Angeles in 1957.
Hofmann’s unique abilities incorporated a technique second to none, and a clarity and pureness of tone that has probably never been heard since his death. Until his final years Hofmann had incredible control over his virtuosity. He was always in total command of everything he played, presenting each work with an impression of complete facility of execution.
Always interested in all things scientific as well as musical, on his first visit to the United States Hofmann was recorded at the age of ten by Thomas Edison with whom he kept in correspondence about matters scientific and technical. Three cylinder recordings from 1896 have also survived, but Hofmann’s first commercial recordings were made in Berlin in 1903 for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company. From April 1913 to April 1918 Hofmann recorded for Columbia and from these seventeen acoustic sessions come some of his best recorded performances, but it must be remembered that the recording process was still in its infancy notwithstanding Columbia’s claims at the time that ‘the tone of the piano as recorded is one more signal triumph for the Columbia corps of recording experts’. This primitive process, however, captured some exceptional and unique performances of Hofmann including a stunning performance of Liszt’s Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli and Moszkowski’s Caprice espagnole, both including extraordinarily accurate repeated notes. Another of Hofmann’s finest discs is of Liszt’s technically demanding arrangement of Schubert’s song Erlkönig, a favourite of Anton Rubinstein.
Hofmann did not renew his contract with Columbia after it expired but signed to one of the new fledgling labels, Brunswick, that had only begun releasing its discs in the United States in January 1920. Predominantly a label that produced popular titles, Brunswick was expanding rapidly and wanted to sign some famous classical artists of the day and in addition to Hofmann managed to persuade violinists Bronislaw Hubermann and Albert Spalding, and pianists Elly Ney and Hofmann’s friend Leopold Godowsky (who also recorded for Columbia at the same time as Hofmann) to record for them. By 1923 Brunswick was the third largest producer of recordings in America after Columbia and Victor and it was at this time that Hofmann’s recordings were made in December 1922 and March and April 1923. From these few sessions, again acoustic, come an impressive performance of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (Hofmann also recorded an abridged, single sided version for Brunswick) and the Concert Etude Waldesrauschen displaying Hofmann’s amazing clarity and dexterity. Other highlights include the Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5, by his friend Rachmaninov, who dedicated his Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 30, to Hofmann, although he never played it in public. Hofmann strictly maintains the Alla Marcia marking of the outer sections of the Prelude but plays the slow middle section as a vocal duet (favouring the tenor) with arpeggio accompaniment, using subtle phrasing of the melodic lines as natural as breathing.
Hofmann’s repertoire, although large, was dominated by the works of Chopin and Liszt, Schumann and Beethoven. Hofmann’s view of Chopin is chaste, with delicate filigree playing of ornamentation. There is clarity and elegance in the Waltzes with Hofmann’s flexibility of tempo (as opposed to indulgent rubato) making them sound like lilting dances rather than virtuoso showpieces. The recording of the Nocturne in F sharp, Op. 15, No. 2, is one of Hofmann’s most extraordinary. It displays his wonderful singing legato tone coupled with his understanding of passages of filigree decoration that are played as an integral part of the melodic line, the descending chromatic passages sounding like vocal slides. In the middle section of the work Hofmann subtlety uses tempo to underline the harmonic changes and gives an unusual feeling of sadness and longing in this section rather than the more often heard frantic ranting. The recording of the Berceuse is surprisingly fast and rather straight-faced although Hofmann’s evenness of trills and passagework are impressive.
As frustrating as it is to hear these recordings in sonically inferior sound we should be thankful that we are able to hear Hofmann in his prime because he made no further commercial recordings in the late 1920s and 1930s when the sonically superior electrical process was introduced and he was at the height of his powers. He did in fact record for RCA in 1935, but these sides were not issued at the time, neither were five sides Hofmann recorded for HMV in November of 1935 whilst in England.
These recordings can be heard many times, and at each hearing the listener can always hear something new, some subtle bending of a phrase, colouring of an internal line, or any one of Hofmann’s myriad details stemming from his innate natural musical gift. Hofmann was one of the greatest of pianists from the Golden Age, or any age. His was a totally unique, individual voice, instantly recognisable, like that of his pupil Shura Cherkassky, and unlike anything that can be heard today.
© 2008 Jonathan Summers
Waltz in A flat major, Op. 34, No. 1
Waltz in C sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2
Nocturne in F sharp major, Op. 15, No. 2
Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op. 66
Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57
Polonaise in A major, Op. 40, No. 1, ‘Military’
CHOPIN arr. LISZT:
Chants Polonais (after Chopin Op. 74), S.840 No. 5 Meine Freuden (My Joys)
No. 1 Mädchens Wunsch (The Maiden’s Wish)
LISZT:Concert Etude No. 1, ‘Waldesrauchen’
Recorded 13 March 1923 - Matrix no.: 10105
First issued on Brunswick 15046
Venezia e Napoli: Tarantella
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2
SCHUBERT arr. LISZT
Spinning Song, Op. 67, No. 4
Rondo capriccioso, Op. 14
Hunting Song, Op. 19, No. 3
La Jongleuse, Op. 52, No. 4
Caprice espagnole, Op. 37
Minuet in G major, Op. 14, No. 1
Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5
Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2
Josef Hofmann, piano
All tracks recorded in New York City
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
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