Jeremy Nicholas of Gramophone Magazine celebrates the iconic life and music of the legendary Josef Hofmann.
There are three pianists I’ve met over the years who heard Josef Hofmann in his prime. Earl Wild acknowledged Hofmann’s style as the biggest influence on him gaining a fluid and flexible technique: ‘His interpretations were always delivered with great logic and beauty.’ Jorge Bolet admitted to me that whenever he heard either Rachmaninov or Hofmann, he always thought to himself, ‘Every note that they play – that is what I would like to play.’ Shura Cherkassky, Hofmann’s best-known pupil, told me that no recording Hofmann made came anywhere near to capturing his unique sound.
My introduction to his playing was when a friend gave me his copy of a Columbia Masterworks LP (ML4929) – the live recording of Hofmann’s Golden Jubilee concert at the Metropolitan Opera House on November 28, 1937. Despite the less than pristine sound (since reissued by Ward Marston, much improved and with extra items), I can’t describe the thrill of hearing for the first time this legendary, almost mystical, figure of whom I had only read about in books. Here was one of the greatest pianists in history, captured on the wing. Everything seemed so lucid, easy and natural, leading voices singing beautifully but with many subtly highlighted inner voices I had not noticed before; the skittering, unpedalled fioratura, the sudden electrical charges, and the inimitable way he would grab your attention with a phrase and then decrescendo.
Not everything came off perfectly that night. (A young pianist once mentioned to Godowsky the wrong notes he had heard at a Hofmann recital, to which Godowsky, Hofmann’s lifelong friend, merely commented: ‘Why look for spots on the sun?’) There are moments of incoherence and excess. Hofmann could be madly (and maddeningly) impulsive, a trait he inherited from his teacher Anton Rubinstein, and it is his now unfashionable brand of pianism – where the concept of a work is a fusion of the composer’s and artist’s thoughts – that offends many critics and pianists today.
Born in Poland in 1876, Hofmann was the epitome of the exploited child prodigy. When he was 11, he gave 50 recitals in America in the space of three months; the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children protested and, at a time when a respectable annual salary was $500, a philanthropist named Alfred Corning Clark stepped in and offered Hofmann’s father $50,000 to take the child away from the stage and not return until he was 18. ‘The problem with being a wunderkind,’ Hofmann was fond of saying, ‘is that the “wunder” disappears at the same time as the “kind”.’