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Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, February 2009

The period covered by this disc covers the years when Hofmann was coming to the end of his Columbia contract (from 1913-18) and was about to join Brunswick. The running order on Naxos’s disc is not chronological so, being grouped by composer and not date, it flits between the years. This has the happy advantage of allowing the listener to concentrate on Hofmann’s approach to each composer rather than chopping things into individual studio sessions. Purists naturally would prefer the latter but this single disc conspectus serves both them and the generalist well.

The relatively extensive Chopin selection shows how much the younger Hofmann’s performances reveal more of his grandeur and exalted status than the controversial 1930s inscriptions. The Op.40 No.1 Polonaise and Op. 15 No. 2 Nocturne are very different from the later, controversial recordings and show a youthful perception and rich colouristic and architectural sensitivity and plasticity. The Fantasy-Impromptu in C sharp minor is sparing of pedal and wonderfully articulated. In the two Chopin/Liszt songs, Mein Freuden (Moja pieszczotka, My Joys) and Madchens Wunsch (Zyczenie, The Maiden's Wish) the refinement of his vocalised legato is palpable. Hofman left behind two well-known Duo Art rolls of the Moszkowski pieces but these disc performances are inevitably their superior and show him in scintillating form. He is subtle in Mendelssohn, virtuosic in Liszt—his 1923 Waldesrauschen remains one of the great recordings of the piece—and if his Rachmaninoff must cede to the composer’s own performance in local terms—pockets of colour, exploration of the inner voices—the two Prelude performances remain remarkable.

I’m not disturbed by any surface noise; Mark Obert-Thorn manages to extract a considerable amount of detail at little cost in terms of hiss or swish. If you want unpublished Hofmann you will need to gravitate to VAI 1036, 1047 and Marston 52014. Similarly if you want the earlier G and Ts or the 1912 and 1915 sessions you will need to investigate further – that’s not part of this disc’s brief. By doing so you can listen to and contrast performances Hofmann left for both Brunswick and Columbia of the same pieces; his Waldesrauschen for Brunswick in this Naxos disc is the superior of the 1918 Columbia, for example, and the Brunswick Op.3 No.2 Rachmaninoff Prelude is again better on Brunswick than on Columbia.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2008

Even at a time when the world was deluged by great touring virtuoso pianists, Josef Hofmann stood out from the crowd as someone of very special gifts both technically and musically. He had been born in Poland in 1876 to a family of professional musicians, had mastered the basics of music by the age of three and gave his first professional concert at the Warsaw Opera House two years later. By the age of nine he was touring Europe including performances of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto in London and Berlin. Two years later he was in the United States beginning a tour that would include eighty concerts performing four times per week. He astounded his audiences, but the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children stopped the tour, and an unknown benefactor paid his father a considerable sum of money on the understanding that Josef would never again appear in public until he was eighteen. That allowed more years of study before again launching his career. When he did so, he was again placed on the treadmill of numerous appearances in every part of the world, the tremendous success of one of his many tours of the United States in 1924 persuading him to make his home there. These recordings, made in New York over the period 1916 to 1923, show that Hofmann was a genius. Just sample the Liszt Tarantella, Venezia e Napoli  to hear some of the most stunning piano playing placed on disc. At times his immense gifts did tempt him to employ tempos that exceeded the composer’s intention, yet the group of six Chopin pieces show a pianist of innate musicality, delicacy and an ability to bring a personal shape to the music that does not transgress the music’s intent. Above all it was his ability to make every note of crystalline and detailed quality however fast the piece. It was a gift he would pass to his pupil Shura Cherkassky. The disc contains 20 tracks, and in addition to Chopin and Liszt we hear Schubert, Mendelssohn, Moszowski, Paderewski and Rachmaninov. They were recorded in the ‘acoustic era’, the restoration engineer, Mark Obert-Thorn, creating a sound that would be acceptable to those wedded to modern digital recordings. In one word ‘remarkable’.

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