About this Recording
GP675 - HOFMANN, J.: Charakterskizzen / Piano Sonata in F Major / Theme with Variations and Fugue (Yasynskyy)
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Józef Kazimierz Hofmann (Josef Casimir Hofmann)
Piano Works


Cocooned in the comfort of their modern cars, how many of today’s motorists are aware that when they turn on their windscreen wipers they are activating a contrivance that was conceived by one of the greatest pianists of the Golden Age? The inventor in question was Józef Hofmann, who also developed the pneumatic shock absorbers used on early aircraft, besides instigating a number of significant technical improvements to his beloved Steinway pianos. As a child, Hofmann was supremely gifted not only in music, but also in mathematics, science and all technical subjects. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that by the time of his death in 1957 he had accumulated more than seventy patents.

Józef (Josef) Hofmann was born near Kraków in 1876. His parents were both professional musicians, and with their encouragement he gave his first recital at the tender age of five. Needless to say, extremely flattering comparisons were made between his prodigious abilities and those of the young Mozart and Mendelssohn. When Anton Rubinstein (himself a former child prodigy) heard the seven-year old Józef play Beethoven’s C minor Concerto in Warsaw, he remarked on the boy’s unprecedented talent.

At the age of eleven, Hofmann undertook an arduous American concert tour, for which he was offered $10,000. He played four concerts each week, always creating a sensation. One critic remarked: ‘This is no child, this is an artist and his piano playing is equal to anything the world has to offer.’ However, about half way through the planned run of eighty performances, the tour was abruptly halted. The boy’s fragile health was becoming a matter of public concern, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children had intervened. Fortunately, a wealthy benefactor came to the rescue. He offered to pay Józef’s family $50,000 on condition that he would not appear in public again until he reached the age of eighteen. The family agreed to this proposal and duly returned to Europe.

The young Józef then had a few lessons from Moritz Moszkowski before receiving intensive instruction from Anton Rubinstein. Hofmann later said his period of study with Rubinstein was ‘the most important event of my life’. In accordance with the financial settlement he had received in America, he did not resume his public career until he was eighteen. From 1898 onwards, he lived mainly in the United States, becoming Director of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia from 1927 to 1938.

Hofmann’s playing was considered noble and poetic, free from any eccentricity, and never routine. In a recent article for The Daily Telegraph, Stephen Hough wrote: ‘Hofmann’s assertive brilliance was breathtaking…and new’. He concludes that ‘no one had ever played like this before, and I think it’s the main reason he was crowned king at a time of many princes.’

Hofmann was the first artist of note to record, and his legacy of piano rolls and gramophone records means that modern audiences can still appreciate the playing of this king of the Golden Age. He made some experimental cylinder recordings for Thomas Edison in 1887 when he was eleven, and even at that age he was fascinated by the technical aspects of the nascent recording industry. His first commercial recordings were made in Berlin in 1903. Highlights of his early recording career include the Prelude in G minor, Op 23, No 5, by his friend Rachmaninov, who dedicated his Piano Concerto No 3 to Hofmann.

Like so many other performing artists of the past, Hofmann was equally at home composing. His output includes a symphony, five piano concertos and a considerable quantity of solo piano music. Some of his smaller pieces appeared under the pseudonym Dvorsky (which is actually the Polish equivalent of Hofmann). He delighted in the fiction that Michel Dvorsky was a reclusive young Frenchman who modestly sent his efforts to Hofmann for evaluation. The humour behind this innocent little deceit is akin to that of the violinist Fritz Kreisler, who famously ascribed the names of little-known composers to some of his own slighter pieces.

Hofmann’s compositions are positioned very firmly in the Romantic tradition. To his contemporaries, familiar with the recent work of Debussy or Scriabin, they probably came across as old-fashioned, but now that sufficient time has passed we can simply enjoy the music on its own terms without worrying about whether it is ‘modern’ enough.

The earliest known piece by Hofmann is a mazurka composed when he was just four. Six years later, in 1886, he produced the two charming Mazurkas in B minor and D minor that are included in this selection. They appeared in a volume of six pieces published in Berlin in 1887. The slightly later Mazurka in A minor, Op 16, was composed for the great Russian pianist and teacher Anna Yesipova or Annette Yessipoff who, like Hofmann, made piano rolls for the Welte-Mignon company.

The most substantial single-movement work presented here is the Theme with Variations and Fugue, Op 14, written in 1892 when Hofmann was sixteen and dedicated to his teacher Moritz Moszkowski. It is a finely wrought piece, and the melody of the main theme also forms the basis for the fugue subject, but with necessary alterations of rhythmic values to allow for the different metre.

Published in 1893, the Sonata in F major, Op 21, is a four-movement work. The opening Moderato is characterised by persistent triplet figurations and sudden interjections that are reminiscent of Robert Schumann, a composer whose influence also colours the Scherzo with its moto perpetuo toccata-like motion. The Andante is written in the manner of a recitative, and the work concludes with an energetic Allegro that again conjures up memories of Schumann.

Much piano music for the left hand results from tragedy, where the artist loses the use of a hand, but some composers write such pieces simply in order to test what can actually be achieved with one hand alone. In this category, Leopold Godowsky surely represents the summit of the art among Romantic composers. When Hofmann published his Étude in C, Op 32, for the left hand, he may well have had Godowsky in mind.

Godowsky is the dedicatee of Hofmann’s four highly contrasted Charakterskizzen, Op 40, published in 1908. The contemplative first sketch, Vision, is followed by a syncopated and rather chromatic movement entitled Jadis. The rippling third movement, Nenien, is wistful in character and is periodically interrupted by a mysterious, grumbling little figure in the bass. The set is rounded off with a sketch called Kaleidoscop, notable for its decidedly Russian flavour. As its name suggests, this presto movement is bright and colourful.

Anthony Short

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