P1298. JORGE BOLET: Chopin (the 4 Scherzi), Beethoven ('Appassionata' Sonata #23 in f), Schubert, Liszt, Donizetti & Wagner Recital. [Another treasurable recital, recorded in brilliant sound!] Transfers by Yves St Laurent. (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-752, Live Performance, 15 Aug., 1969, Bloomington, Indiana.
“In FANFARE 38:5 I had the pleasure and privilege of reviewing a 6-CD set of live performances by the great Cuban-American pianist Jorge Bolet, released on Ward Marston’s label. Now from St. Laurent Studio comes a wonderful supplement to that: a complete recital in a place that was in many ways an artistic home for Bolet from 1968 to 1977, the fine music school at Indiana University. Recorded by the school’s excellent recording staff, the mono piano sound is wonderfully natural and has an appropriate sense of space around the instrument. Bolet was always better, generally significantly better, in live performance than on studio recordings. In part due to his own poor career management, he never enjoyed the degree of stardom his playing merited. Bolet was certainly not without a public following, and his playing in the Liszt bio pic SONG WITHOUT END helped boost it. But what is to be heard on these two discs, as well as in the Marston set, is pianism at the highest level, equaled by very few rivals.
Bolet is not easy to characterize. Because of his association and comfort with the music of Liszt, and his appearance in a mainstream Hollywood film, some may think of him as merely a flashy virtuoso. He certainly had technique to burn. But technique is not the first thing that would occur to me in a word-association game if you said ‘Jorge Bolet’. What I would think of would be words like ‘imagination’, ‘fantasy’, ‘poet’, and ‘delicacy’. Although he can blaze through virtuoso showpieces, and does so here in the Mephisto Waltz and the Schubert-Liszt transcriptions, it is the pianist’s deeply felt musicality and variety of keyboard color that leaves the lasting impression.
The ‘Appassionata’ Sonata is not as thundering as, for example, Richter’s, or as severe as Serkin’s. What it does have is a lightness of touch to contrast with more impassioned passages, along with incredibly even passagework in the finale. Bolet shapes the entire sonata so that its intensity keeps growing, until exploding in the final coda.
Also at the core of Bolet’s playing is cantabile. I have no direct knowledge of this, but based solely on his playing would believe that Bolet was an opera lover. Certainly one hears it in his playing of Liszt’s paraphrase of Donizetti’s LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR. But one also hears it in the four Chopin Scherzi, and we are reminded that the composer enjoyed the music of Bellini and particularly relished great bel canto singing from artists of the time like the celebrated soprano Giuditta Pasta. When we hear Bolet perform Chopin, no matter what other keyboard wizardry and interpretive insights are present, we feel that song is at the heart of the music.
Of course that is as it should be in the Liszt transcriptions of Schubert Lieder, an ensemble by Donizetti, or a wonderful lyric chorus by Wagner. I found it difficult to resist singing along, even aloud, with the Liszt transcriptions, because Bolet’s phrasing was so utterly natural. In its shaping of the line, its loving feel for color, its remarkable subtlety of dynamic shading, this recital is unforgettable.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
“Jorge Bolet, a Cuban-born virtuoso considered one of the leading contemporary exponents of Romantic pianism, had a peculiar career in that he did not achieve international success until he was in his 60s. From his days as a child prodigy at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, there never was a doubt about his phenomenal talent. His technique ranked with that of any living pianist, he drew a rich sound from the instrument, and he even won a major competition - the Naumburg, in 1937. But in the 1940s and ‘50s he had scarcely any engagements. It was, he once said, a period of ‘half-starvation’.
Not until the 1970s was he recognized as a great master. Many who had followed his career from the beginning saw a deepening in his musical thought around that time. Whatever the reason, he suddenly started to receive rave reviews; he signed a big recording contract with Decca in England and played a series of engagements that took him all over the world. At one point he was giving some 150 concerts a season. He himself professed to be puzzled about his sudden fame. ‘Why now?’ he asked Allan Kozinn in an interview in THE NEW YORK TIMES in 1982. ‘I've been told by many people that my playing has undergone a transformation in the last few years….I'm not sure this is something I can feel myself’.
At age 12 he was sent to the Curtis Institute where he studied with David Saperton, Leopold Godowsky, Moriz Rosenthal and Josef Hofmann. These were remarkable pianists who were exponents of the Romantic school, and Mr. Bolet grew up to be a worthy successor to his great mentors. The two pianists he admired most were Hofmann and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
As Mr. Bolet pointed out many times, the true Romantic style was anything but anarchic or self-indulgent. The great Romantic pianists of the past were aristocratic artists who never distorted music, who had tonal beauty, who used expressive devices that consisted largely of delicate fluctuations of tempo. ‘Flexibility within the pulse of the music’ was how he described it.
In the 1970s musicians started looking at the once-derided music of Liszt and other Romantics, and a wave of neo-Romanticism was in the air. Then Mr. Bolet finally came into his own. He was one of about a half-dozen veterans who could convincingly bring Romantic music to life. He had a colossal technique that never was used for its own sake; at all times his playing was subtle, refined, elegant. He could summon great masses of sound when necessary, but like the great Romantic pianists he never pounded. In a day when the prevailing piano sound was percussive, his hands seemed made of velvet, and he drew luminous, tinted sounds from the keyboard in great washes of color. It might also be said that his tall, stately, dignified figure brought to the concert stage an element of glamour that had been missing from the younger generation. He pointed out that the greatest composers of the past would give a trusted performer considerable latitude. He stated that music on the printed page meant nothing: it had to be brought to life by a performer, and any decent performer had to work through thought and instinct, ending up reflecting the composer through his own personality. He had no hesitation making changes in some of the music he played, though the changes were so discreet that none but professionals could have noticed them. ‘It is a performer's responsibility’, he said, ‘to do what will best put across the piece he is playing’.
He also tried to pass his style to his students. Mr. Bolet did a great deal of teaching. He was active for some years at Indiana University and then went to Curtis, where he eventually succeeded Rudolf Serkin as the head of the piano department. He felt a moral obligation to teach. ‘I have received knowledge and experience from the great masters’, he once said, ‘and it is now my responsibility to pass it on to the next generation’.
He was one of the few pianists to record the Godowsky arrangements of the Chopin Etudes; these Godowsky transcriptions may be the most difficult pieces ever written for solo piano.”
- HAROLD C. SCHONBERG, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 17 Oct., 1990