|CD 1 (63:06)|
|Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, op. 58|
|1.||I. Allegro moderato||15:55|
|2.||II. Andante con moto||4:27|
|3.||III. Rondo: Vivace||9:19|
|Conducted by Eugene Ormandy|
|4 April 1938|
BELL TELEPHONE HOUR BROADCASTS
|4.||Polonaise in A, op. 40 no. 1, “Military”||3:09|
|1 March 1943|
|5.||Waltz in D-flat, op. 64 no. 1, “Minute”||1:33|
|9 August 1943|
|6.||Etude in G-flat, op. 25 no. 9, “Butterfly”||1:03|
|31 July 1944|
|7.||Waltz in A-flat, op. 42||3:54|
|14 January 1946|
|8.||Berceuse in D-flat, op. 57||3:46|
|13 January 1947|
|9.||Song Without Words in A, op. 62 no. 6, “Spring Song”||2:52|
|30 July 1945|
|10.||Song Without Words in C, op. 67 no. 4, “Spinning Song”||1:52|
|19 August 1946|
|11.||Rondo capriccioso in E, op. 14||6:43|
|13 January 1947|
|12.||Prelude in G Minor, op. 23 no. 5||3:58|
|30 July 1945|
|13.||March, op. 12 no. 1||1:31|
|19 August 1946|
|14.||Musical Snuff Box||1:31|
|9 August 1943|
|15.||Musical Snuff Box||1:26|
|14 January 1946|
|CD 2 (79:10)|
|Piano Concerto No. 3 in G, op. 45|
|1.||I. Moderato assai||10:56|
|3.||III. Allegro non troppo||9:26|
|Conducted by Artur Rodzinski|
|5 March 1944|
|Concerto No. 4 in D Minor, op. 70|
|4.||I. Moderato assai||12:20|
|Conducted by Karl Krueger|
|10 March 1945|
BELL TELEPHONE HOUR BROADCASTS
|7.||Concerto No. 4 in D Minor, op. 70, First Movement (Moderato assai)||10:50|
|Conducted by Donald Voorhees|
|27 March 1944|
|8.||Concerto No. 4 in D Minor, Third Movement (Allegro)||10:09|
|Conducted by Donald Voorhees|
|1 March 1943|
Produced in association with the Estate of Josef Hofmann
Producers: Gregor Benko and Ward Marston
Audio Conservation: Ward Marston
Photographs: Gregor Benko and Milus Scruggs
Booklet Design: Takeshi Takahashi
Marston would like to thank Donald Manildi and Eugene Pollioni for their help in the production of this CD release.
Marston would also like to thank Dimitrios Antsos for computerized pitch correction and stabilization for CD 1,Tracks 5-15; CD 2, Track 7.
The Incomparable Hofmann
Part 1: An Overview
Josef Hofmann often maintained there were only two pianists whose playing influenced him. The first was his mentor, Anton Rubinstein; the second was a well-known pupil of Mikuli and Liszt, Moritz Rosenthal. At the time his concerts were exerting influence on the young Hofmann, Rosenthal was called to account for taking liberties with the score. This was not the first time. Moritz–no shrinking violet–decided to answer his critics in Vienna’s Die Zeit. His 1895 riposte in the form of an elegant Letter to the Editor ended with the line, “We no longer want ‘true servants’ of art; what we need are masters.”
Today we can dispassionately consider Josef Hofmann a supreme “master” in Rosenthal’s sense of the word. In those heady days, what Rosenthal referred to was not merely a comprehensive command of the keyboard, but an artistic stance, which could (and would) assume the prerogatives of mastery. It is partly the exercise of those prerogatives (some call it composer abuse) that has become a source of considerable controversy. The “partly” refers to the undeniable fact that there are artists nearer to our own time who have distorted the score more than Hofmann, such as, alphabetically, Arrau, Cherkassky, Gould, Horowitz, Pogorelich, (Arrau? Yes, Arrau!), but general authority has granted each a dispensation for his “transgressions.”
This, the eighth volume in the series of recordings, “The Complete Josef Hofmann” is cause for celebration–a celebration of this supreme mastery. Indeed, many (perhaps most) pianists, critics, and music lovers of his day recognized Hofmann as the ultimate pianist/musician, but it is not the purpose of this essay to restore a sovereign to his throne. Such arguments are more likely to raise the blood pressure of Richterites and Brendelians everywhere than to contribute to the enlightenment of the reader. Hofmann’s art is not to everyone’s taste (whose is?), but now that we can avail ourselves of Hofmann’s manifold legacy it ought to be apparent that his stature is unassailable. Dismissal of Hofmann (and this has been tried by those who should know better) is at this point fatuous and irrelevant, akin to a tourist declaring he doesn’t care for the Pyramids. This is for the simple reason that, like those monoliths, Hofmann was one-of-a-kind, sui generis–and that sort of phenomenon is, by definition, incomparable. Similarly, those pianists who assert that they would never play à la Hofmann do not as a rule raise the more obvious point–that they couldn’t if they wanted to. One does not have to maintain Hofmann as the ultimate pianist to assert that he was inimitable.
Of course, it is possible to claim a level of individuality for every great artist, but in Hofmann’s case the artistic profile is so deeply etched in wax, shellac, vinyl, and tape, that the savvy listener can identify his playing in a matter of seconds. At the same time, it cannot be easily imitated (as opposed to other affetuoso performers like Horowitz, Gould, or Paderewski) because the subtleties of his pianism are so intimately and uniquely wedded to the musical line. This “immediate recognition” factor is usually a characteristic of great composers, rather than instrumentalists. Hofmann, however, doubled as a composer (as did most of his colleagues/rivals), and as the standard repertoire passed through his hands, it also filtered through a composer’s creative intelligence. Even when the recorded acoustic is atrocious (for instance, the off-the-air Chopin First Concerto fragment with Hamilton Harty from 1935), it is unmistakably Hofmann at the keyboard. The nature of the distinctive Hofmann filter is what will ultimately concern us.
First we might briefly index Hofmann’s pianistic characteristics: a distinctive gift for the singing line; an opulent tonal palette; a dragonfly touch; the reflexes of a viper; an extraordinary dynamic range; a regal rhythm; an innate sense of repose and proportion; a rare intuition of light and shade; a unique command of Romantic ornamentation; a logical mind coupled to an impulsive, at times explosive temperament; an occasional penchant for the bizarre; an inexorable sense of climax...one could go on for some time. More importantly, Josef was both a cultivated musician with unmistakably aristocratic instincts and performer–a true creature of the stage, in the limelight since early childhood. For any concert pianist, the stage is part altar and part arena; the total performer, part priest and part gladiator. Most pianists lag in one area or the other. In his salad days, Hofmann epitomized both in equal measure.
Hofmann’s interpretations of the piano masterworks cannot be divorced from his distinctive pianistic qualities. There were and are many players (including some less than famous ones) who come close to matching Hofmann in sheer keyboard acumen, but probably no other pianists so let their imagination feed off their physical abilities. For instance, in order to bring off the fabulous apotheosis in the climactic bar (third bar from the end) of Chopin’s B Major Nocturne, op. 9, no. 3 (from the Casimir Hall recital in Volume Six), one must possess a staggering pianissimo technique, perfectly gauged pedaling, and the aural imagination to create such an effect in the first place. It probably wouldn’t have occurred to Hofmann to play it that way if he didn’t have the prior capability to do so, hence the conception is fired by the technique as much as by Chopin’s notation.
Hofmann’s performance of the Chopin E Minor Concerto is the first selection (in Volume One) of this series. There we can examine the first twenty-four bars of the piano solo and what Hofmann does with it (and why), and perhaps gain a measure of insight into a style that set him apart from other pianists. As a preliminary matter, the performers use an abbreviated tutti that, in one form or another, has been adopted since the days of Tausig (a decade after Chopin’s death). Hofmann eschews the piano’s fortissimo entry in favor of a modest mezzo forte. The maestoso theme (in octaves) is at once brought to a diminuendo. The ensuing upward arpeggio is similarly tapered off (no crescendo as marked) and this is succeeded in turn by a descending quaternary pattern, played sans Chopin’s accents. The eight bar cadence ends in the form of a question; here again the pianist adopts a diminuendo. So far, the overall impression is under-assertive–one might even say, prim. Chopin has not given us anything unusual, so neither does Hofmann. All is logical, as we are directed towards the reply to come. However, we point out that three expression marks have been ignored and the performer has made substitutions of his own.
The sequence is now repeated, this time in augmentation, and we proceed into a classic subdominant–dominant–tonic series, which answers the question posed by the initial cadence. This time Hofmann grants to the maestoso theme a healthy forte, the descending pattern now cushioned by a graceful rallentando that prepares the entry of the second theme. Except for this rallentando, everything up until now has been played in exact time.
The second theme beginning in the seventeenth bar is marked expressivo, but Hofmann nevertheless maintains a tempo identical to the introduction. Chopin’s expressivo is observed only in that Hofmann stretches the first melodic note (b) from a semiquaver to a full quaver, with the four note phrase tapering off. No true rubato is employed until the ensuing phrase–the ascending three notes tensile; the passing tone (F#) ever so slightly stressed; and the descent relaxed. Chopin marks an accent on the appoggiatura in bar 20, but Hofmann opts for a primary stress on the submediant (C) in the preceding bar. A slight lingering on this note adds a shiver, a touch of morbidezza to the proceedings. We are now no longer in the realm of Hummel, but of Chopin. After all, Hofmann may have reasoned, why unduly emphasize the ppoggiatura? It is on the bar’s downbeat and will receive its due on that account. The composer’s accent is redundant, perhaps an indication for advanced students but not germane to a player of Hofmann’s level.
This enchanting melody now repeats in the subdominant, is brought to a high (A) and descends in rapid semiquavers, (twenty-one sixteenths against six eighths.) Here Hofmann unveils one of his calling cards, a bantamweight leggiero touch–absolutely frictionless–but most significantly, fastidiously in time. The twenty-fourth bar then moves into the rest of the melody without the sforzando marked on the downbeat. The expressive elements just described are ever so slightly exaggerated in the recapitulation. What’s going on here? Let’s return to the beginning. First, Hofmann does not trumpet his entry. He treats the introduction in a manifestly formal way, simply question and answer minus any dynamic element–whether fortissimos, crescendos, or accents–that distracts from the musical discourse he means to sustain. The cadential answer (i.e. bar nine) is quite naturally accorded greater vehemence than the question, but only as it directs our attention towards what Hofmann is really intent on, the second theme (which the audience has not yet heard, it having been excised from the tutti). Starting in the seventeenth bar, the left hand’s accompanying chords are kept discreetly in the background as Hofmann unfolds a melodic line with limpidity and delicate rhythmical nuance that generally does not adjust pulse. As the concerto unfolds we notice that the pianist respects ornamental passages, no matter how difficult, by maintaining tempo. Hofmann was not absolutely unique in this regard; Rosenthal and Busoni seem to have handled fioritura similarly, but Hofmann may well have been the more fastidious player and in any case seems to possess the secret of how to bring dizzying flights of fancy, no matter how complex, to soft and gracious landings. One is not only mesmerized by such lightness and dexterity, but also by the graceful integration of decoration with the line itself. The tempo is, however, hardly ever adjusted to accommodate the fioritura.
One argument against this approach toward melody and ornament is that fioritura’s roots lie in bel canto opera, specifically the operas of Bellini and Donizetti, (of which Chopin was quite fond). Inasmuch as no singer can vocalize fioritura at those tempos, why play them that way? Shouldn’t the pianist seek to emulate the capabilities of the singer? The answer is that in the development of an art form, the practical limitations of one instrument should not be incumbent on another. Moreover, opera is an essentially narrative art and, although composers have tried to set musical forms more appropriate to the concert hall within its conventions, ultimately the music must conform to the story itself. The decorative element within a strong narrative context–typically spanning two to five hours–serves a quite different function than within a formal concert work of thirty minutes. In the latter, the music’s architecture is more pronounced and bears the principal burden of both long-term and short-term coherence. Decoration “decorates” the structure, i.e., it enlivens and nothing more: the line itself remains inviolate. Hofmann’s art exemplified this principle.
Revealing himself as an eminently lucid player, a logician who conceives of music as a formal discourse of precise dimensions and the antithesis of egotism or of hyper-emotionalism, Hofmann employs a deft rubato that respects the bar line, so that within an essentially metrical framework he is nevertheless able to release the perfume of Chopin. The overall tempo is largely maintained on the macro level as well, and it is not until the coda of the concerto that the pulse quickens.
There are many ways that Hofmann calls the listener’s attention to the fact that the piano is a separate brain, an independent personality, in concert with the orchestra, but not of it. A particularly telling indication is the piano entry in the Romanze (second movement) of this same Chopin Concerto. After the leading tone over a dominant chord held by the orchestra, both soloist and band are expected to hit the downbeat together. Hofmann, however, begins only after Barbirolli has established both downbeat and harmony, suggesting to the audience the distinctive nature of his endeavor. Then the ravishing melody is revealed as perhaps never before. The piano is to converse with the orchestra, rather than imbed itself within it. Curiously enough, Vladimir Horowitz’s valedictory conception of concerto playing (his Rachmaninov Third Concerto recordings with Ormandy and/or Mehta in 1978) is actually more in keeping with Hofmann’s approach, than with his idol, Rachmaninov. The Russian composer/pianist/conductor (based solely on his studio recordings) conceived his concertos more or less symphonically, the piano a constitutive element in the total ensemble. Hofmann probably did not find this approach congenial and he did not play Rachmaninov’s concertos in public. However, one can only salivate at the chimera of a Hofmann rendition of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a genuine piano dialogue with orchestra. It would have been a magnificent–almost ideal–vehicle for him.
It can easily be argued that Hofmann’s innate sense of line often (not invariably) serves the musical argument better than the composer’s own indications. Curiously enough, he will often eschew theatricality, even when specified by the composer. This is an unusual trait for a leading Romantic pianist, (and certainly the opposite of Vladimir Horowitz). Hofmann does not underline unless he feels it necessary. A case in point is his rendition of the scherzo from Beethoven’s Sonata, op. 31, no. 3 (Volume Five). In Sviatoslav Richter’s diaries, he calls such playing “stunning,” but questions Hofmann’s omission of Beethoven’s sforzatos (which Richter prefers). But our pianist does not ignore them. The sforzatos on the upbeat are always maintained, but moderated so as to emphasize the quicksilver current of the music. In fact, the whole dynamic range has been reduced, but the internal dynamic ratios are clinically accurate and Beethoven’s rhythmic design, perfection itself. Many pianists today (perhaps most) when confronted with a Beethoven accent, exaggerate so as to make sure that no one can mistake their observance of the composer’s expression markings: subitos evaporate, sforzandos smash. Hofmann demonstrates more restrained aristocratic tendencies, so as to view the forest through the trees. When he does accentuate, it is usually for harmonic or rhythmical reasons. In illustration, try the piano’s entry of the Chopin E Minor Concerto Rondo, the Finale (Volume One), where he accents the upbeat, giving the theme a distinctly Polish lilt. Hofmann is always alert to creative rhythmic possibilities; he can truly dance as well as sing. Another particularly telling example of Hofmann’s command of musical discourse is in the first movement of the Chopin B Minor Sonata, op. 58 (Volume Five). Clothed in rather intricate formal attire, it doesn’t make its beauties known instantly as does the exposition of its more famous antecedent, the B-flat Minor Sonata (“Funeral March”). In this opening movement, fine artists can easily lose the attention of the audience. The pianist must “sell” it to the public. Hofmann employs a limited dynamic range, a pastel palette, and extremely subtle pedaling. Periodic oases of melody set Chopin’s counterpoint in relief as, under his fingers, this music persuades with an inexorable formal mastery: it always moves, and the details reveal themselves only in relation to the movement as a whole. There is no sense of meandering, as is the case with so many other pianists. It is a shame Hofmann didn’t record the whole sonata, a cornerstone of his late repertoire.
We have so far presented Josef Hofmann as a cool and thoughtful artist, and in many respects he was. Certainly he was temperamentally the opposite of his master, Anton Rubinstein. Although famous for his supposed improvisational style, Hofmann could reproduce an interpretation with photographic precision if he chose to, as his several test pressings of the Chopin A-flat Waltz, op. 42, attest. He was an ingenious and resourceful experimenter as well. His multiple recordings of the adagio sostenuto of the “Moonlight Sonata” (including a broadcast of the complete sonata, Volume Six) portray him as quite the chameleon. Hofmann also had a playful and humorous side and it is a most characteristic aspect of his own compositions. Based on two performances of his own concerto, Chromaticon (Volume Two), he would have made a singular Prokofiev pianist if so inclined. His jaunty rendition of Prokofiev’s little March (in Volume Five) proves it. Hofmann, however, played little of his contemporaries, at least those of consequence. One exception is his early championship of the Scriabin Concerto, a somewhat Chopinesque work, but he did not carry it in his repertoire for long.
Like most pianists, Josef Hofmann’s repertoire shrank with age. Within the chronological parameters of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, his overall repertoire was formidable. He performed all of Beethoven’s “name” sonatas as well as op. 2, no.2, op. 31, no. 3; ops. 90, 101, 106, 110, and 111. He performed four of the five Beethoven concertos, although he concentrated only on the last two later in life. Of the major Schumann piano works, only the “Humoresque” seems to have escaped his attention. He played much Liszt, several important Liszt transcriptions, Mendelssohn, and his master, Anton Rubinstein (Bach and Schubert, mostly in transcription). Brahms received short shrift from Hofmann (only the Handel Variations), but that was in keeping with Russian and Polish piano culture and that did not change until the 1950s. Of course, Chopin provided a major chunk of his repertoire, and that only increased as time went on, but Hofmann doubtless knew far more than we usually think and that he usually offered the public. He performed the C Minor Concerto of Saint-Sa91ns in November 1910 with the New York Philharmonic under Mahler’s baton; he played the Third Sonata of Scriabin in concert often and the Fourth in the presence of his student Ralph Berkowitz. His pupil William Harms once brought the Prokofiev Third Concerto, and Hofmann at the second piano immediately launched into the orchestra reduction from memory, without the score. As a dramatist, Hofmann was exceptional. But a seemingly savage temperament was perhaps not a constitutive part of his personality. It served instead as an artistic resource, a sort of spiritual well from which he could draw when needed, and he was shrewd in his use of it. In the recording studio it rarely showed its face, but in public, he could orchestrate a relentless climax commensurate with that of any pianist. He was also subject to tigerish pounces in the low register, particularly if he felt the performance was not holding its own. A questionable example of that is in the meno mosso of the E-flat Minor Polonaise (Casimir Hall Recital, Volume Six). Hofmann has received criticism on this score, some of it misplaced. After all, a classical pianist is not a method actor from the Stanislavsky school. Hofmann engineered his performances more like an Olivier, casting spells on the audience like a master mesmerist. He always knew what he was doing in advance, even when he miscalculated.
His legendary recital at the Casimir Hall of the Curtis Institute (named after his father) dovetailed with an ill-timed and brutal severance from that institution after nearly more than a decade of service as its director. The playing, which is never less than white-hot in intensity and blinding in its virtuosity, is possessed of a powerful neurotic component atypical of most of his playing. One is sometimes reminded of the disorientation of Horowitz in one of his more manic states. Yet withal, these are sensational performances and the audience is clearly rapt. Which brings us to our final point.
Hofmann appealed to both the masses and the connoisseur in equal measure, which is indicative of a healthy art. Most music today appeals to either one group or the other and the same can be said of piano playing. The audience for these recordings will be connoisseurs, but had they existed in Hofmann’s heyday, the general classical music public would scramble madly after them.
Shura Cherkassky, comparing his master with Horowitz, said that Hofmann “was possibly a greater musical mind. However, I think Horowitz was a greater virtuoso, a greater pianist. He somehow appealed to the whole world. Hofmann could not communicate on that level.”
Really? Cherkassky did not remember that his teacher’s Carnegie Hall concerts always sold out weeks in advance, with seats on the stage and an audience that wouldn’t leave until Hofmann had played a great many encores. Hofmann had a fanatic following in South America and Mexico, where after one concert he was carried on the backs of admirers in parade to his hotel. In November 1916, during the height of World War I and three months before the February Revolution that was to bring in Kerensky,
Hofmann was to give a series of four recitals in St. Petersburg. He had appeared there in every one of the ten previous years, yet all the concerts were already sold out before he played the first note. We must keep in mind that the large hall, La Salle Noblesse, had 3,200 seats (Carnegie Hall seats 3,700). So Hofmann added a fifth recital–then five more, all sold out. The lines that formed at midnight in frigid temperatures were around the block by morning. Out of necessity, the series finally expanded to twenty-one concerts. By the end of the month, he had played in front of 67,000 paying customers with a final box office tally of $79,000 (what the New York Yankees paid Babe Ruth for a full season ten years later). At these concerts Hofmann played 255 separate compositions from memory. Cherkassky would only have been five years old. How was he to know?
Part II: These Recordings
Before discussing these recordings we should consider the gem of this release, a benchmark recording in the Hofmann discography: the Beethoven 4th
Concerto with Eugene Ormandy made in 1937. If one performance could be salvaged from the Hofmann legacy to convince the purist, it might well be this one. In interviews with Rudolph Serkin in 1971and 1972, the noted pianologist Dean Elder asked, “Do you think big-line phrasing is more important for the Romantic than the Classical composers? Is this why the so-called Romantic pianists were less successful in Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven?” Serkin replied, “ I don’t think that last statement is quite accurate. You would probably call Hofmann a typically Romantic performer–he had a big, long, wonderful line in Beethoven. I heard him play the Beethoven 4th Concerto in Europe. His phrasing was the most beautiful you could imagine.” Elsewhere, Serkin says, “I never heard Hofmann in his primeC9” Serkin, who was in some ways Hofmann’s polar opposite–anxious, driven, and rough-hewn–was appointed one of his successors as director of the Curtis Institute. Taking him at his word, Serkin would most likely have heard Hofmann play this concerto in 1935 during the latter’s penultimate European tour. He therefore seems to be commenting on a performance roughly contemporary with this broadcast–one that fully substantiates Serkin’s admiration.
The overall pace is quick, and tempo modification lies well with boundaries acceptable to today’s ears–not always true in Hofmann’s Beethoven solos. The passagework is extraordinarily adroit, even measured against contemporary standards. The articulation is stunning–indeed one could take dictation through the fuzz of the broadcast–and the melodic material is phrased with such grace and logic that it is no wonder it left such an indelible mark on Serkin’s memory. Hofmann’s mastery of eighteenth century Classical piano technique, as codified by Czerny, is absolute. Scales, arpeggios, intervals, and passagework in parallel and contrary motion are more than quicksilver and blemish-free. There is an ease in the execution, a lubrication of all the working parts, that gives forth a sensation of absolute effortlessness. Technique on this level erases itself and the music lives, bereft of the means that brought it about. Many of Hofmann’s contemporaries, like Michalowski, Friedman, or Pugno, although sensational bravura players, exhibit less than stellar control in standard technique of the sort required by Beethoven. They tend to needlessly accelerate, and sometimes (as with players like Hambourg and Friedheim) the articulation can become threadbare. Not Hofmann. His artisanship aims for a Hellenic ideal. The lines and parabolas of Beethoven’s design are tapered as subtly and precisely as the grooves on an Ionian column and yet they remain handmade, fresh, and devoid of the standardization brought about by repetitive studio work.
The Rubinstein Third Concerto is a peculiar work, in which the Finale reminisces the main themes from the preceding movements in retrograde order, before resuming its argument. Hofmann mercifully cuts this part out, and makes a case for a tighter, coherent, albeit more conventional structure. Despite its unconventionality (the soloist opens and closes with the same cadenza), the Third Concerto is typical Rubinstein: a big-boned symphonic conception grafted onto an essentially Mendelssohnian harmonic schema. (With the advent of Liszt and Brahms, Rubinstein’s harmonic world was already an anachronism by the time he reached middle age.) The Rachmaninov concertos largely replaced the Rubinstein concertos in the affections of the public. Rachmaninov’s profound psychic identification with Russian landscape touched a universal chord across the globe that Rubinstein’s European Court sensibility could not compete with. Hofmann, however, remained loyal to his master. Triumphing over a slightly frayed technique, he resurrects the Third Concerto with all the glory and pathos needed to make an effect on the modern audience. He brings the Victorian age, the grand balls, the aristocratic pageantry, the gowns and uniforms, back to life so vividly that even his old teacher could hardly have asked for more.
The Rubinstein Fourth Concerto in D Minor is a better-known work, and Hofmann’s performance (Volume Two) is a tour-de-force. This performance under Karl Krueger is similar in approach, but with a more restrained tempo, a thicker sound, and microphone placement that more clearly favors the soloist. The first and last movements are also offered once more with Voorhees and the Bell Telephone Orchestra. One notices that Hofmann is now hard put to maintain himself in the large climaxes. The Bell Telephone performances document a rather precipitous decline through the war years in Hofmann’s sobriety, and thus his pianistic powers, so that by 1947 a simple encore like Liadov’s “Snuffbox” is a challenge. Hofmann was only in his early 70s and had he been able to triumph over his alcohol and other problems and maintain a genuine interest in piano performance (it’s hard to know what is cause and effect in this equation), there seems no reason to doubt that he could have given strong performances into the 1950s. By this time he was preoccupied with his mechanical work (he was a noted inventor), and his repertoire had shrunk to pieces learned as a child. He did not leave an account of himself to be envied. The post-war American audience, without recordings to measure, no doubt viewed him as a faded relic of another age, indeed a vanished world, ultimately irrelevant. But now most of Hofmann's recordings are available. They are all the evidence anyone needs to illustrate why he was legendary in his own day, and why his playing will remain a legend that will surely reverberate as long as the piano does.
©Geoffrey Dorfman, 2005
Throughout Mr. Dorfman’s essay, reference is made to the eight CD volumes that comprise “The Complete Josef Hofmann.” Volumes one through four were released on the VAI Audio label and volumes five through eight were released on the Marston label. The entire series was produced by Gregor Benko and Ward Marston in association with the Hofmann Estate and the International Piano Archives/International Piano Archives at Maryland. All recording engineering was performed by Ward Marston.
A Note from the Producers
Volume Eight of this series was originally intended to be the final offering of “The Complete Josef Hofmann.” Recently, however, some additional Hofmann material has come to light, which means that we will be producing a ninth volume within the next year. This volume will include alternative takes of two Brunswick sides, as well as the soundtrack from a Bell Telephone Hour film, and three cylinder recordings of Hofmann dating from 1896. We have also discovered some Hofmann Telephone Hour performances that differ from the ones issued in volumes five through eight, due to the fact that each broadcast was actually given a second time for west coast listeners.
We are extremely fortunate to have located excellent sources for most of the material contained in the present volume. The Beethoven Fourth Concerto has been remastered from 78 rpm lacquer transcription discs recorded off the network line, giving the best possible sound. Sadly, the disc containing the second movement was severely scratched causing a series of loud clicks, which we have attempted to repair without affecting the integrity of the musical line. In addition, we are pleased to include a recently discovered disc source for the Rubinstein Third Concerto, also taken off the network line, which has never before been available. Would that all recorded broadcasts could sound so good! The only flaw in this recording is a short passage in the third movement where the lacquer disc coating had seriously deteriorated. This section has been patched from a disc source taken from an A. M. radio station. Unfortunately, a good-sounding source for the Rubinstein Fourth Concerto has never surfaced. In fact, the only recording of this performance is a set of discs that has long since disappeared. Consequently, we have had to use a tape transfer of the discs made more than thirty years ago. The sound of this recording is highly compressed and distorted, but the inferior sound is probably a result of poorly recorded original discs and not the tape transfer. The Telephone Hour material emanates from several sources. The third movement of Rubinstein’s Fourth Concerto and Chopin’s “Military” Polonaise are both remastered from Armed Forces Radio Service transcriptions, while Mendelssohn’s “Spinning Song” and Prokofiev’s Op. 12 “March” both come from a surprisingly good sounding off-the-air disc source. The remainder of this material was transferred from line transcriptions with excellent sound, but all of which were afflicted with noticeable pitch wow. Thanks to the brilliant work of engineer, Dimitri Antsos, this flaw has been all but eliminated.