Josef Hofmann, Vol 5
Josef Hofmann (1876-1957) is among music’s most jealously guarded legends. For his admirers (and they included Anton Rubinstein and Rachmaninov) he could do no wrong, and those fortunate enough to have heard him live during his heyday in America can reminisce by the hour, recalling unforgettable performances of a vast repertoire ranging from Beethoven’s Op. 111 Sonata to the major works of the great romantics. However, Hofmann’s recording career was – for a variety of reasons fascinatingly outlined by Harold Schonberg in the notes accompanying Marston’s two-disc set (Vol. 5 in an ongoing series) – less satisfactory, a bits-and-pieces affair reflecting not only the limited taste – and particularly American taste – of the times but a feeling that Hofmann’s genius was so tumultuous and varied that it could hardly be contained on disc. Not everything is worth its weight in gold and at the risk of committing sacrilege or inviting critical excommunication, I would suggest that truly representative Hofmann performances are as elusive as a needle in a haystack. Certainly there is little here to compare with his wildly provocative but thrilling Chopin G minor Ballade (part of his legendary Golden Jubilee Concerto issued on VAI Audio as Vol. 2, 5/93). No fewer than six performances of the A flat Waltz, Op. 42 will, in Mrs Merton’s immortal words, provoke a “heated debate” though, to be honest, they are remarkably similar, less ardent or suggestive than from the inimitable Cortot, and moving from a surprising sobriety to a final whirl of energy.
Again, while most pianists would give an eye, or even a finger, to spin off filigree with Hofmann’s facility there is a price to be paid for such insouciance. Are the cadenzas in the Nocturnes (try the one at the end of Op. 9 No. 2) musically integrated or are they reduced to flashes of crowd-pleasing bravura? The Berceuse’s “rain of silvery fire” is sacrificed on the altar of prestidigitation, and where is the warmth and insinuation of a Rubinstein (Artur) in the Andante spianato, his heroic as well as scintillating line in the following Polonaise? There are, of course, thrills a-plenty, but Hofmann’s sudden rushes of adrenalin often suggest external gestures unrelated to the music’s inner fire and poetry. Liadov’s Musical snuff box, too, provides an opportunity for high-speed whimsy rather than teasing evocation and nostalgia (of the sort demonstrated to perfection by Hofmann’s pupil, Shura Cherkassky) and his way with Weber’s Moto perpetuo hardly erases memories of Moiseiwitsch’s wicked wit and dazzle. In Chopin’s Third Sonata (first movement only) you have to wait, after a strait-laced, metronomic start, for a second subject of a finer engagement, though the Gluck-Sgambati Melodie and Hofmann’s own Berceuse (music alive with something of Balakirev’s conversational elegance) are ‘sung’ with all of his famous legato and cantabile.
More generally, it is difficult not to be wise after the event, to sense a pianist damaged by early exploitation, one whose final collapse into alcoholism and unhappiness was not without significance. Yet even when Hofmann’s genius alternates with diffidence, his devotees will seek out this valuable release. They will also pay particular attention to Gregor Benko’s and Ward Marston’s ‘dream’ that still further, so far unreleased recordings will come to light.'