Both of Josef Hofmann’s 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 debut 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 played in Germany, France, Holland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Britain. He played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 15 in Berlin with the Berlin Philharmonic, and in London performed the same work with the Royal Philharmonic Society.
The following year 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 pianist and composer Moritz Moszkowski who realised however that he could teach Hofmann very little.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 debut 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 of 1894; Rubinstein returned to Russia and died in the 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 lived in Berlin until 1918 and then moved to the United States. In 1924 Hofmann was appointed head of the piano department of the newly formed Curtis Institute of Music and from 1927 was its director for just over ten years. His most famous pupil was Shura Cherkassky. In 1937 Hofmann celebrated his Golden Jubilee at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, an occasion introduced by Walter Damrosch who had been at the young Hofmann’s debut in 1887. Hofmann moved to Los Angeles in 1939 and after 1940 reduced his concert appearances, giving his last concert at Camp Wigwam, Maine in August 1948.
Hofmann was also a composer publishing more than one hundred works, many under the pseudonym Michel Dvorsky; he performed his own Chromaticon for piano and orchestra at his Golden Jubilee concert. As a child he was gifted not only in music, but in mathematics, science and mechanics and by the time of his death he owned more than seventy patents for items such as pneumatic springs, a windshield wiper, and many devices for the improvement of amplification in pianos.
Hofmann showed that rare combination of almost excessive artistic gifts allied with a great capacity for work and study. Like his teacher Anton Rubinstein, he gave a series of Historical Recitals. At the Salle de la Noblesse in St Petersburg, from November 1912 until February 1913 he played 255 works in twenty-one recitals, all from memory. Hofmann’s repertoire was extensive, but the composers he favoured were Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann and Liszt. Apparently he played little French music (Debussy’s Clair de Lune was an exception), and only a few works by twentieth-century Russians, including Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. He was personally acquainted with Scriabin, and in London in 1926 played Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 4 Op. 30 and Balakirev’s Islamey in the same programme as he played Three Chinese Pieces by Abram Chasins at the Wigmore Hall. After a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 111, Abram Chasins attemped to convey to Hofmann the power of his performance. Hofmann modestly replied, ‘I’m very sorry for you that you never heard my master. Why… I’m a child – all of us put together are infants – compared to his titanic force.’
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 dynamics and his virtuosity. He was always in total command of everything he played, presenting each work with an impression of complete facility.
Hofmann was the first artist of note to record when, as a child of ten, he was recorded by Thomas Edison with whom he kept in correspondence about matters scientific and technical. For a pianist of his stature, Hofmann’s commercial recordings can be frustrating and unrepresentative. His first commercial recordings were made in Berlin in 1903 for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company. He was twenty-seven years old, yet the discs are on the whole disappointing and uninteresting: perhaps he felt constrained by the recording studio. From 1912 to 1918 Hofmann recorded for Columbia and from these acoustic sessions come some of his best recorded performances including Liszt’s Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli and Moszkowski’s Caprice Espagnol, both including extraordinarily accurate repeated notes. Other highlights include the Prélude 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’s next commercial discs were made for Brunswick in 1922 and 1923. From these few sessions, again acoustic, come the scintillating Feuerzaubermusik by Wagner, arranged for piano by Louis Brassin. Many of the other titles recorded had already been issued by Columbia, but there is also a fine (though abridged) Scherzo in B minor Op. 20 by Chopin, and by Liszt, the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and an impressive La Campanella which was unpublished at the time. The question then arises, why did Hofmann make 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, although they have since appeared in Marston’s The Complete Josef Hofmann series of compact discs. Most important among them is a complete performance of the first movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B minor Op. 58, where one can hear Hofmann in an extended movement rather than the many encore works he recorded. In this work he is one of the few pianists to make musical sense of the chromatic development section. After hearing a performance of the complete sonata in 1940, Virgil Thomson wrote, ‘The Chopin B minor Sonata was my completest enjoyment of the evening. Mr Hofmann has always put his super-best into Chopin. So it is just as well to mention in that connection certain technical and musical excellences that are the very substance of Mr Hofmann’s piano-playing, because it is in his playing of that composer’s works that they are most sumptuously and completely laid before us.’ In November of 1935 whilst in England, Hofmann recorded five sides for HMV, and of these the most important is of the scherzo from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E flat Op. 31 No. 3 which he never otherwise recorded. It is known that Hofmann was particularly satisfied with the HMV discs, but they were never released until well after his death. Piecing together the rest of the Hofmann picture can be done with surviving recordings of radio broadcasts and live performances.
A part of Hofmann’s performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor Op. 11 at the Queen’s Hall in London in 1935 has survived. The sound is poor, but complete performances of both Chopin concertos survive from the late 1930s and are some of the most extraordinary piano playing captured on disc. Hofmann’s dexterity and clarity in the third movement of the Concerto No. 1 is extraordinary. It should be mentioned here that Hofmann’s recorded performances divide critical opinion today. At the height of his career in the 1920s and 1930s Hofmann was without peer in the pianistic world; most of his professional colleagues acknowledged him as such. However, by the early 1940s circumstances in his personal life had led to him becoming reliant on alcohol and this affected his performances, some of which have survived from the Bell Telephone Hour Programme. In the late 1960s Hofmann’s recorded performances were described in print as ‘…the lowest debasement conceivable of a noble and aristocratic art’. In the 1970s a well-known English critic described Hofmann’s ‘…arrogant refusal to acknowledge even the most basic directions… and the way Hofmann’s legendary ‘virtuosity’ collapses so quickly into so much uncontrolled gibberish’. Like all pianists of his era Hofmann was an individual with his own sound and his own understanding of a composer’s score. Today, in an era in which most pianists attempt to persuade their audience that they are offering the composer’s music as he intended it, it is difficult for many to comprehend an artist like Hofmann who would express his conception of a work in the way he thought appropriate.Hofmann’s view of Chopin is chaste, with delicate filigree playing of ornamentation. The larghetto from the Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 21 is an excellent example of Hofmann’s understanding of this composer; it is a vocal interpretation at times almost sounding as a speaking voice. Other surviving live performances include Beethoven’s Piano Concertos Nos 4 and 5 and the Concertos Nos 3 and 4 by Hofmann’s teacher Anton Rubinstein. He chose to play Rubinstein’s Concerto No. 4 Op. 70 at his Golden Jubilee Concert at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1937; miraculously, the whole concert was recorded, including his solos. His tone in the slow movement of the concerto is extraordinary for its richness and quality of sound, attributes often admired in Anton Rubinstein himself. Hofmann celebrated his Jubilee in Philadelphia on 4 April 1938 with a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 Op. 58 conducted by Eugene Ormandy. It is a performance of chaste poetry, light and shade. The solos, which he also performed at the New York Jubilee, were also recorded.
Another complete surviving concert was the one Hofmann gave at the Curtis Institute three days later. Of interest here are performances of major works not otherwise recorded by Hofmann: Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata Op. 53 and Schumann’s Kreisleriana Op. 16. It is the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata that so upsets today’s critics, and also the fact that Hofmann omitted parts of Kreisleriana. Hofmann also gives a stunning performance of his own Kaleidoskop Op. 40 No. 4 and a titanic reading of Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F minor Op. 52. It is here that Hofmann’s enormous dynamic range and intensity can be heard in a performance that comes close to the descriptions of the playing of Anton Rubinstein. Recordings of Hofmann broadcasts still continue to be discovered; another performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major Op. 58 given in 1943 with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Dimitri Mitropoulos has been issued by Marston, and Marston’s The Complete Josef Hofmann series is now to include recently discovered cylinder recordings from the 1890s in Volume 9 (the final volume of the set).
Hofmann was one of the greatest of pianists from the Golden Age, or any age. His was a totally individual voice, instantly recognisable, like that of his pupil Shura Cherkassky, and unlike anything that can be heard today. Whether one likes or dislikes Hofmann’s style, it can never be denied that he was one of the most prodigiously gifted musicians to have ever graced this earth.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).