HOFMANN: Octet; Serenade; Sextet – Berolina Ens./ MD&G

by | Aug 3, 2013 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

HEINRICH HOFMANN: Octet, Op. 80; Serenade, Op. 65; Sextet, Op. 25 – Berolina Ensemble – Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm multichannel SACD (2+2+2) MD&G 948 1808-6, 78:03 [Distr. by E1] ****:

“Hofmann” (and what I guess is its cognate “Hoffmann”) seems to be the German equivalent of Smith or Jones. Heinrich (1842–1902) is one of the lesser Hofmanns, a Berlin-born musician quite popular in his own day, today known not at all, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Born into a poor family, his fine treble voice as a boy allowed him to mark out a musical career for himself, singing first in the Berlin Cathedral Choir and then in the opera chorus. His earnings allowed him to buy a piano, and under the tutelage of virtuoso pianist-composer Theodore Kullak, Hoffman became a formidable pianist himself and managed as well to study church music, counterpoint, and composition with some of Berlin’s finest musical pedagogues.

Hofmann’s first successes as a composer came in the field of opera (the one-act comedy Cartouche of 1869) and symphonic music (the Hungarian Suite dedicated to Brahms and the Symphony in E-flat, “Fithjof,” said to be, for a time, the most frequently performed symphony in Germany). But Hofmann’s specialty was not orchestral music; similarly, his chamber works are very few. Like Bruch, he was chiefly known in his own day for secular choral works, as well as song.

So what happened to Hofmann’s sterling reputation? The same thing that happened to the renown of composers such as Bruch and Raff. Their music struck a chord with audiences of their day, but shortly after the death of Raff (and, unfortunately, long before the death of Bruch in 1920) musical taste moved on, and the fickle music-loving public moved with it. Also, even more than Bruch and certainly more than Raff, Hofmann worked in a musically conservative community in Berlin. Note-writer Michael Wittmann explains: Hofmann “appears as the last representative of a conservative, classicist approach in which early music (Palestrina, Bach, Handel) and Viennese Classicism were the measure of all things. . . . Louis Spohr was a welcome guest in Berlin, while representatives of the ‘New German School’ like Liszt, Hiller and Schumann were given a hard time.” Even Berlin native Felix Mendelssohn “was seen as a borderline composer who truly belonged to Leipzig.” While this provincial attitude moderated toward the end of the century with the influx of Leipzig-centered and -trained musicians such as Joseph Joachim and Woldemar Bargiel (another Berlin native, half-brother of Clara Schumann), Hofmann remained true to the earlier tradition, which “might well explain why his works exerted influence for such a limited time.”

Alas, it’s next to impossible to get an idea of Hofmann’s chief productions from recordings; a few excerpts from his operas and vocal works are available, and that’s about it. The current disc is thus useful in giving us an idea of Hofmann’s musicianship, though it offers us works in a genre that was not his forte. And in fact all these chamber works are lightweight fare written with entertainment, rather than profound statement, the foremost object. The first work on the program, the Octet, was actually Hofmann’s last chamber work but even an educated listener hearing it for the first time might be hard-pressed to locate it in the second half of the nineteenth century. In fact, either consciously or not, Hofmann seems to start off with a thematic tribute to Mendelssohn’s celebrated String Octet of 1825. Hofmann’s work, however, is scored for “the unusual combination of flute, clarinet, horn, bassoon and string quartet,” which makes it sound like a pared-down version of an orchestral serenade on the order of Brahms’s Second Serenade or Robert Fuchs’s Fifth, though to tell truth, it lacks the punch of either of those works. While Brahms wanted to update the eighteenth-century divertimento in his two Serenades, Hofmann seems content instead to take us back to the days of Danzi, Hummel, and Spohr. If you’re willing, though, Hofmann’s piece is well put together and chock-a-block with enticing melodies.

That could be said as well of Hofmann’s 1883 Serenade for flute and string quartet and 1874 String Sextet, which is actually the most commanding work on this program. The minor key seems to stimulate Hofmann to essay slightly deeper emotions, although the Allegro appassionato marking of the first movement shouldn’t have you thinking of Schumann or Brahms: Hofmann’s brand of appassionato is far more dispassionate than those two gents are ever likely to be in a similar vein. Again, however, Hofmann serves up some delicious tunes, like the second theme of this first movement. The skittish scherzo, which Michael Wittmann describes as “exaggerated in almost Mannerist style,” leaves the strongest impression.

So there you have it. If you’re not immune to the attractive blandishments of a musical conservative who, like the aforementioned Robert Fuchs, is a dab hand at well-done musical entertainments, there’s much to enjoy in these expertly played works, served up in lovely surround sound by the enterprising Werner Dabringhaus and friends.

—Lee Passarella

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