Actually, I'll qualify my question. I'm sure some pianists could play it like that - if they had the imagination to conceive it in that way. His recording blows Michael Ponti's out of the water.
I couldn't agree more. It's interesting that you mention Michael Ponti, for he's the only pianist I really like of the "new generation" (though, admittedly, there are many I haven't heard). But even Ponti's playing has nothing of the orchestration, the color, or the effortless virtuosity of Hoffman. The latter's playing of Wagner's ritual fire dance music makes one forget about the natural percussiveness of piano notes and focus on sound itself.
Personally, I don't think pianism at this level will ever be heard again. Mind you, there are others from the golden age I prefer -- namely Friedman, Barere, Cortot, Saperton, and yes, even Horowitz. In addition, while his Chopin 1st Ballade is great, I think Hoffman's fortes are better exhibited in salon-style passagework and filigree: the ethereal lightness of his Minute Waltz is unparalleled, and his Berceuse typifies the French notion of "jeu perle" (his chromatic double thirds passages in this should IMO be the envy of any serious pianist). Overall, I would say this ballade is a great post here because I think it's less often heard than many of his other performances.
Technically, Hoffman's only competition was his contemporaries, and even they lacked to some extent the raw natural facility of this, one of the greatest musical prodigies since Mendelssohn and Mozart. This brings me to the discussion of technique itself. I often have to smirk when technique is equated with accuracy. This logically makes no sense since the word refers to a "mode of execution," in this case a way of holding one's hand to achieve sound. If a note is being missed because of a technical problem, it may become a subset of execution, but if one is dropping a few notes in a performance because of merely being human or taking risks, the two are tenuously correlated at best. Horowitz said essentially that "technique is sound," and while this may be a rather simplistic summation, there's a lot of truth in it. After all, isn't this why we listen to a recording -- to appreciate a performer's mastery of sound on a particular piece?
The pianists of the past were unfettered by any physical obstruction; they possessed the freedom to do whatever they wanted at any time of day or night. In the modern era, we've been spoiled by recordings and the associated editing techniques. Cortot's Schumann recordings, for example, have been criticized for their lack of polish, but who today would walk into the studio and in one take record the entire work, all 20-odd pieces? Likewise, who would dare to perform, as he did, both books of Chopin etudes in a live performance? Well a few have attempted, but with such panache? Who has such physical control over dynamic range, from the most whispering pianissimo to the grandest fortissimo? Even Hoffman, at his diminutive size, I daresay could make a listener's hair stand on end with his dynamic contrasts.
Many of the pianists of today I have seen pound, wave around their manes of hair, and flail their arms, in short expend unnecessary effort, and in the end all that comes across is opacity, a dense texture of notes. Stephen Hough is a good example; I couldn't quite get over the downright crudity and brutal butchering of his Rachmaninov 3rd. Perahia, by contrast, is tepid and inconsequential. The blandness of his Mozart and Schubert recordings makes me want to squirm as I futilely yearn for some dynamic direction or rhythmic idea to emerge.
But of course we can't quite blame them. The competition era of piano playing that churns out pianists from an assembly line has us all thinking that this is what matters. After all, as Horowitz also said (approximately), "Competitions eliminate; they don't judge excellence." That Hoffman might be burned at the stake for his manner of playing doesn't bespeak ill of him but of the droves of spineless critics who sit with cheese-sniffing expressions on their faces, pen at the ready, caviling over accuracy and markings in the score. What a waste of time. It's practically an exercise we could train chimps for. Any non-tone-deaf dolt can spot a wrong note.
In the end, Hoffman always delivered an eminently individual statement. Many times I disagree with the interpretation, but he had a real imagination. I have yet to hear (with the exception of many of Ponti's recordings) a professional pianist from this modern era that tells his own story or plays with abandon. As Oscar Levant put it in the movie Humoreske (also approximately), "If a pianist doesn't have his own individual sound, he may as well quit."