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.
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.