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Josef Hofmann

Discussion in 'Pianists' started by BrokenFingers, Jun 21, 2010.

  1. BrokenFingers

    BrokenFingers New Member

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    I can't express enough enthusiasm for this pianist, he's just amazing. I bought a few cds of his, restored piano rolls and older recordings, and all of his recordings were incredible.

    Here's a link to his Chopin Ballade no. 1, the coda is phenomenal.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UX6PXkqOr0Y


    Any other Hofmann enthusiasts here? :D
     
  2. techneut

    techneut Active Member Piano Society Artist

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    Can't deny there are touches of genius here, a headstrong personality, and a jaw-dropping technique. Yet, he does the most godawfully banal and ugly things... How these golden-age pianists got away with the things they did is beyond me. If any modern pianist would play like this, they'd get burned on the stake. Is it nostalgia coloring peoples' judgement ? Was a pianist like Hoffmann really so much better than say, Sokolov, Perahia, Hough ? Just wondering.
     
  3. BrokenFingers

    BrokenFingers New Member

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    I'm not familiar with Perahia, but I guess that doesn't matter. I don't exactly know what you mean by "godawfully banal and ugly things", could you elaborate? I understand that Hofmann, along with other 'vintage' pianists, occasionally made certain altercations to the score but he still remained true to the overall frame of the piece in all of his recordings. In fact, Hofmann was a great advocate of staying true to the composer's intentions, devoting many pages to the subject in his books on piano playing. I don't see anything contradictory to Chopin's intentions(Of course, I don't know his intentions!) and certainly nothing drearily predictable in this recording, so I don't know maybe you could tell me what bothers you about it. I do agree, though, that many pianists from this era receive praise that is somewhat based on the fact that they are old/legendary. Personally, I think that many pianists today play pieces much less musically than they should and I am fascinated by the uniqueness in Hofmann's playing. I am not saying that Hofmann is better than, say Hough for example, I think that their styles are very different and it really just depends on what your personal taste is. But you cannot deny that Hofmann had an incredible technique, and was, most of the time, an incredible musician.
     
  4. Terez

    Terez New Member

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    Chris's tastes are often different than mine, but a few things he might have been referring to include the abrupt and harsh accentuation of bass notes, using staccato in strange places, emphasizing secondary themes to the point of overshadowing the main ones, rushing through passages that would probably make more sense with a tad bit of reflection, etc. There wasn't much deviation from the score that I noticed. He botched a few things, but since it's live, that can't be what he's talking about. Despite those things, I enjoyed the recording; I'd rather listen to that than the standard performance, though I would have played it differently.

    I have never understood the big deal about the Goldens either. Granted, I don't listen to them very much, but I have never heard a recording by Rubinstein or Horowitz that I really liked, and I've heard several that were plain awful. Maybe I am just not listening to the right stuff.

    As for modern pianists and burning at the stake...I often feel like the industry stamps out creativity in favor of technical perfection. Others would probably agree, but they would also probably cite Rubinstein and Horowitz recordings with many mistakes to make the point, and that is where they would lose me. :lol: I never felt like there was anything in those recordings (the few I heard) to make up for the slips.
     
  5. techneut

    techneut Active Member Piano Society Artist

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    For that time, certainly :) These were days when pianists could still dazzle audiences with their technical prowess, and could do whatever they wanted with the music and few would complain.
     
  6. Terez

    Terez New Member

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    Yes, I have to admit I had Horowitz in mind when I wrote the word 'awful'. Rubinstein has simply never thrilled me, and I have heard tales from both 88man and my piano teacher's husband in the last two days about how he played the Chopin 25/11 in Europe. Apparently, he said that he was surprised when he came to America that people actually expected him to play the right notes! :lol: And now you've made me look it up, and I found this video. Now I'm wondering if this is a clip from where he was telling the story about the rave reviews he got in Europe for...that's almost exactly what I imagined, actually. And with the pedal he's using, and the light RH, I can see how he got away with it. :D
     
  7. BrokenFingers

    BrokenFingers New Member

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    :lol:

    It's Horowitz's Rach 3 recordings that make me cringe, euugh that cadenza... I like Rubinstein's nocturnes and mazurkas very much, but most of his other work leaves me dry(his Rachmaninoff, for example). Fame is rarely equal to talent, though I guess that is exactly the point you guys are making. x D

    @Chris. I think his recordings are brilliant and just as much enjoyable today as they were 80-100 odd years ago. In most cases of people playing under this 'style', the composer approved! For example, Benno Moiseiwitsch's unique playing of the Rachmaninoff preludes was praised by Rachmaninoff. And I am quite sure that this style was even more so utilized in the times of Chopin & Liszt. The way of playing has certainly drastically changed, and I can't help but think that it has been affected by the lack of composers. For me, all of the different recordings from this period are more interesting to listen to than more modern ones, though sometimes the musical ideas might seem a bit too much. Hofmann was a man who, in St. Petersburg 1913, played 21 concerts in 21 days, repeating no repetoire and playing a total of 235 different compositions. Certainly you can forgive a few of the oddities in this live performance. I encourage you to listen to more Hofmann. :D
     
  8. andrew

    andrew Member Piano Society Artist

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    I wonder if it is a consequence of conservatory training, preparation for competitions where a pianist doesn't want to do something overly individual to offend juries, etc rather than industry concerns. After all editing is sufficiently advanced nowadays that I have it on good authority some cds of chamber music were sightread and patched together later - surely that implies that there is no requirement to do one-take technical perfection in the studio.

    Re Hofmann, I think this is a staggeringly good performance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCPkKCOI1m8

    There are a very few wrong notes, and I'm not convinced by what happens at 1.28, but what current pianist could play the passage from 1.47 the way he does? Despite the background hiss and extraneous noise, the layering of the sound is magnificent; I've spent a fair amount of time on this piece and couldn't begin to have that level of control. 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 don't think all the "golden age" pianists are wonderful - I've heard some abominable things from Horowitz (and not just from the times where he was heavily medicated), but even in some of his bad recordings you can often hear from the sonorities produced that he was a remarkable pianist.
     
  9. jlr43

    jlr43 Member Piano Society Artist

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    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."
     
  10. BrokenFingers

    BrokenFingers New Member

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    Pollini, to name one pianist. I agree with alot of the points that you have made, but the world isn't inhabited by entirely safe pianists today. Who would dare perform all 12 Transcendental Etudes in a live performance? Berezovsky, Lugansky etc. etc. Not to speak of the things that Hamelin has done live. But maybe I'm rambling, I'm just saying the kind of lion like bravado of pianists of the past still exists today, although maybe less so.
     
  11. jlr43

    jlr43 Member Piano Society Artist

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    Thanks for clarifying. I thought while writing this that a few prominent modern pianists must have done the complete set live (though I was unaware of it, having only heard one book performed by many), but then neglected to qualify it.

    Incidentally, I've heard Pollini's etudes on recording and find it the essence of monotonous, syrupy, nerveless playing, the tempos too careful and the rhythm overly straight and "rubatoless." Pollini may have accomplished the feat of getting through them all live, presumably with most of the notes right, but I think his performances of these pieces are very "safe" by comparison with Cortot's, Friedman's and Lhevinne's (select etudes), Saperton's, or even Backhaus's.

    Hamelin's manner and execution to me are reminiscent of some dweeby accountant crunching numbers. In his hands, a Haydn sonata, a Liszt rhapsody, and a Godowsky song transcription all sound the same.

    Anyway, I edited above to reflect your comment.
     
  12. Terez

    Terez New Member

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  13. techneut

    techneut Active Member Piano Society Artist

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    OMG :roll: :lol:
     
  14. BrokenFingers

    BrokenFingers New Member

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    Nooooo! :(
    You can't trust all of his recordings, as some were made when he was very old.(and a dangerous alcoholic)'

    Here, listen to this ; D I couldn't find the correct recording on youtube, but if it's anything like his earlier recording you'll be amazed.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2eU2k0VaMQo
     
  15. jlr43

    jlr43 Member Piano Society Artist

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    Very true. Funny, I remember his recording of this from the Golden Jubilee album as being more "presentable" so I hope this isn't the same one. Here, he sounds a bit rambling and unsure in places. Still, what color and control! The seamless legato and flexible rubato in the intro (compare this to Argerich who jerkily distorts the rhythm), the dramatic dynamic contrasts and perfectly clear arpeggiated chords in the octave middle section, and perhaps most impressively (for me), the sustaining of the melody over the rather lush orchestral texture in the closing recap; I've never heard anyone balance that so elegantly.
     
  16. Marik

    Marik New Member

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    You cannot take those "godawfully banal and ugly things" out of historical context and traditions of that time. Along with that it is important to understand that from historical point of view, still in many ways Hoffmann had modernistic trends of playing (of course, with all idiosyncrasies of "Romantic" playing of that time). In any case, MOST of his pre "Golden Jubilee" Concert recordings are unsurpassed by ANY modern pianists in term of taste, filigree and "naturalness" of technique, imagination, temperament, etc. Just listen to his Chopin both Concerti to understand the titanic qualities of his pianism, surpassing even those of Josef Lhevinne.

    While indeed, pianists like Perahia, Pollini, Kissin, etc. play piano well, the main difference is that Hoffmann (as well as Rachmaninov, Horowitz, Gould, Gilels, and few others) had individuality. They had what to say, and they could be recognized just from a few notes. Most of the modern pianists are like Hollywood divas--you cannot say one from another--they all look the same.

    By the way, I am not sure how one could mention in the same sentence Sokolov and Perahia. Those two are completely in two different spheres of both, pianism and musicianship.

    Best, M
     
  17. rv

    rv New Member

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    WAT :shock:
     
  18. techneut

    techneut Active Member Piano Society Artist

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    Yes. I should have used two different sentences :lol:
     
  19. Chopaninoff

    Chopaninoff New Member

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    Terez,
    The recording of that nocturne...is just horrible.. I did not feel the climax anywhere and very dry for my taste. Luganskys interpretation is rather different... He plays the beginning more slowly than most pianists and plays the doppio section faster than most...But he does keep control of the melody which is vital and crucial, I personally enjoy this rather drawn out interpretation...Agreich... truly romantic performance of this nocturne and her middle section before the octaves is truly breathtaking. Rubinstein and Igoshinas version is my favorite though.
    As for Hoffman, he is a good pianist no doubt. But due to the recordings that he has made, I cannot make a full judgment. Have you herd his Rachmaninoff prelude op 3 no 2? It was so rushed...it took out all the emotion. Maybe I am wrong. But just my opinion
     
  20. Chopaninoff

    Chopaninoff New Member

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    You are wrong there.
    I have attended 12 Pollini concerts in my life time. Not once did he play all the etudes from both books. He played either one of the books, or selective etudes from both books. He has RECORDED them, along with Berezosky, and Lugansky ...But they never play ALL of them in a concert. Berezovsky and Hamelin play Godowksy etudes, and even those are selective, such as op 10 no 12, op 25 no 12, op 10 no 4. So he is not wrong.
     

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