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Piano Concerto in E minor, Op.11, Scherzo in Bb minor Op.31, Waltz in Ab major Op.34/1 & short pieces by Rachmaninov, Mendelssohn, A. Rubinstein, Weber, Schytte & von Sternberg.
Joseph Hofmann
Nimbus Grand Piano NI 8819 [75.57]

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This is my first experience of this series of Duo-Art piano roll transfers. I approached it with slight scepticism. The Reproducing Piano claimed advantages over acoustic gramophone recordings of the earliest 20th Century. Duo-Art became so successful that virtually every major artist was persuaded to record for it, until the development of radio, cheaper 78s and the Depression combined to force its extinction in the 1930s. Having got entirely used to Nimbus's minimal-interference way with old shellac gramophone records (some of those transferred to CD even preceding the standardisation at 78 r.p.m) and comfortable with the needle noise which they do not eliminate, it was hard to become accustomed to music making from the 1920s in perfect piano reproduction, on a fine modern Steinway. Paradoxically, it actually sounds anachronistic and, one suspects, 'false' at first, so closely had the 'period' sound of earlier gramophone records been linked with the actual performances in decades of listening to legendary musicians of past eras.

These performances show Joseph Hofmann (1876-1957) in his prime; he went into a sad decline in later life and retired in the '40s, the worse for too much drinking. He made this Duo-Art recording of the Chopin E minor Piano Concerto in 1925, and the shorter pieces were committed to piano rolls at various dates between 1919 & 1928.

No-one has much good to say of Chopin's orchestrations. It has recently been shown (Shiraga with string quintet on BIS CD847, & Artur Pizarro at Blackheath's Piano Works 1999 - reviewed by S&H October 1999) that his concertos go very well with a small chamber ensemble. Many older pianists will have the concertos in the Peters Edition of Chopin,s complete piano music, which includes reductions of the tuttis for solo piano alone, and it is this which Joseph Hofmann appears to have presented. I found it an absolute delight and missed the orchestra not at all!

The Mendelssohn Spinning Song Op 67/4 is played even faster than did Rachmaninov! Several of the other pieces, now forgotten, featured regularly at the end of his programmes. Each is a pleasure to hear, but too much velocity and prestidigitation at a sitting can become wearisome, even though Hofmann's own stamina was legendary and he would finish mammoth recitals with series of encores, one such appearance in Petersburg described in detail with the very full biographical notes included. His memory too was remarkable; before playing the 25 Chopin Preludes together for the very first time he borrowed the music for five minutes, then sat down & played them!

I am not entirely happy with the ordering of this CD, with the concerto at the end. I would advise listening to the concerto first, followed perhaps by just one of the Chopin pieces as your encore, and then a good break. Many of the others are dazzling demonstrations of easy command of the keyboard, and the system allows for reproduction of dynamic variations, as well as precisely replicating rhythm and rubato. The dynamics were compared with gramophone records kept as reference. The pianists themselves checked and approved all details, surviving correspondence showing how seriously they did so. The new 'robot' used here is a 'state of the art' development of the original machines, and newly incorporates perfect una corda expression, recorded in the originals but imperfectly reproduced hitherto.

Others in the same series, well worth investigating are NI 8801 (The Grand Piano Era) and Joseph Hofmann playing Liszt & Beethoven on Nimbus NI 8818.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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