HOFMANN: Oboe Concertos (Bela Drahos/ Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia/ Stefan Schilli) (Naxos: 8.553979)
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Leopold Hofmann (1738-1793)
Concertos for Oboe and Harpsichord
Leopold Hofmann was the most prolific and arguably the most popular composer of concertos in Vienna during the mid-eighteenth century. He composed around sixty concertos between the late 1750s and mid-1770s for a variety of solo instruments. Some of these works, notably the concertos for keyboard and violin, may have been written for his own use or as teaching pieces. The remainder, however, occupy a more problematic place among his compositions. Although he may have written a good deal of music for amateur public consumption, large-scale works such as symphonies and concertos probably were composed upon commission. Although there is no unequivocal evidence to substantiate this view, the concentration of certain genres in particular collections suggests some sort of contact with the composer. One of the most notable instances of this is the preservation of a group of otherwise unknown flute concertos by Hofmann in the library of the Princes of Thurn und Taxis in Regensburg.
Hofmanns oboe concertos are particularly problematic in this regard. First, the extant solo concertos are associated with three collections, none of which appears to have stronger claims to being considered the most authentic source than either of the others. Secondly, of the six extant oboe concertos, two works (C1 and d1) are arrangements of flute concertos (D1 and e1). These arrangements, which in effect are little more than transpositions, might be the work of Hofmann himself but equally might be the work of either a professional copyist or performer. The Concerto C3, another problematic work, shares its slow movement with G1, a practice which is unusual for Hofmann and may indicate that the work was assembled as a pastiche by someone other than the composer. The remaining works, however, appear to be genuine oboe concertos. One, F1, appears in the Breitkopf Catalogue as an oboe concerto (Supplement V, 1770); the others, although absent from Breitkopf and other contemporary thematic catalogues, are preserved in more than one source and are not known in any other version. That none of the works achieved wide circulation is unsurprising. The oboe was not a particularly popular solo instrument in the later eighteenth century and concertos generally survive in comparatively few copies. Nonetheless, the fact that Hofmanns concertos for oboe (and oboe and harpsichord) can be found in Berlin, Dresden, Harburg, Budapest and Krom??er??íz?? suggests that his reputation as a composer for the instrument was well known. A lost double oboe concerto by Hofmann was performed at the Viennese court by Johann Schmid and Luigi Livraghi on 12th November 1762. It is one of only a handful of documented performances of Hofmanns concertos in his lifetime.
In form and style Hofmanns oboe concertos are indistinguishable from his flute concertos, which in turn bear a strong familial resemblance to his other works in the genre. Hofmanns concertos are characterized by their well-wrought musical structures, attractive melodic ideas and highly idiomatic solo writing. Even in instances where the solo instruments are interchangeable, as in the case with the flute/oboe concertos, the writing lends the works a very distinctive quality. The flute seems particularly well suited to Hofmanns musical language and perhaps his fascination with the instrument is evidence that he himself recognised this fact. The instruments principal strengths are agility and delicacy of tone colour; it is capable of executing shimmering runs, fast passage work and the delicate, filigree ornamentation which is such an integral part of Hofmanns concerto style. When the very same passages are played on the oboe, however, or passages very similar in conception, they are equally effective and yet extraordinarily different in character. In the authentic oboe concertos and in the two double concertos the instruments more robust sonority and penetration lends an edge to bravura passages and an expressive intensity in the slow movements of which the flute is simply not capable.
The two solo concertos on this recording once belonged to Franz Xaver Fürall, an oboist in the service of the Oettingen-Wallerstein family. Füralls death on 11th February 1780 provides a convenient terminus ante quem for dating the works, although in all likelihood they were composed a decade earlier. A second copy of G1, formerly owned by the famous eighteenth-century oboist Joseph Triebensee, survives in the Schwarzenberg archives at C??esky-Krumlov; it too appears to date from the 1770s. According to the old catalogue numbers recorded on Füralls copies, the C major Concerto (No.12) was acquired earlier than the G major work (No.17). Whether this is a reliable indicator of the composition order is highly debatable; it is, nonetheless, the only evidence we possess. C1 is in some respects the more impressive of the two works. Its powerful unison opening with octave leaps is unusual for Hofmann and the brief outburst from the orchestra in the midst of the second solo section in the finale is also atypical; it even has about it something of the flavour of C.P.E. Bach, whose orchestral music at least was not well known in Vienna, although Hofmann probably knew some of his Lieder. Fine though the outer movements are, the gravely beautiful Adagio is perhaps the most memorable movement of the concerto. G1, although smaller in scale, is also a very accomplished work. In some respects it is closer in spirit to the flute concertos than C1 and it may represent an arrangement of a lost flute concerto. Although the slow movement was reused in another concerto (C3) it is the finale which grips most; with its braying high horns and relentless drive it is an exhilarating movement in the best Hofmann tradition.
Among Hofmanns most interesting and distinctive orchestral works are the two concertos for oboe and harpsichord written, in all likelihood, during the late 1760s. The appearance of the two works in successive years in the Breitkopf Catalogue (C1 in 1770 and F1 in 1771) is evidence of a sort that they were not composed at the same time. The unusual combination of solo instruments points strongly to an external commission, the composition of a second work, proof perhaps that the first work was well received. The two concertos are very strongly contrasted. First and foremost, C1 really should be considered a concertino rather than a concerto in that it avoids the conventional use of the sonata-ritornello principle which is the defining structural element of the eighteenth-century concerto. The first and second movements are binary structures with ritornello elements; the finale, a Menuet with five simple figurative variations after which the theme is repeated. F1, on the other hand, has two substantial sonata-ritornello movements and an impressive Tempo di Menuet finale. The orchestration is also markedly different: C1 is scored for the solo instruments, two violins and basso; F1 for a full string section and startling obbligato parts for two horns. Such is the importance of the horns that Hofmann reintroduces the tonic unexpectedly in the development sections of both outer movements in order to use the instruments thematically before resuming the process of development and modulatory extension. Thus, the sonority of the instruments is considered important enough by the composer materially to change the expected flow of the movement. C1 has a more intimate quality to the music and may well have been performed domestically as chamber music. The two double concertos are immensely appealing works. The thematic material is distinctive a