P1152. JORGE BOLET, Vol. II: Ambassador From the Golden Age - A Connoisseur's Selection for the Bolet Centennial, incl. Bach, Rameau/Godowsky, Mozart, Mozart/Liszt, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Donizetti/Liszt, Verdi/Liszt, Wagner/Liszt, Schumann/Liszt, Franck, Debussy, Vorisek, Tchaikovsky/Rachmaninoff, Godowsky, Weber/Godowsky, Schubert/Godowsky, Chopin/Godowsky, Chasins, Moszkowski, J. Strauss/Godowsky, R. Strauss/Godowsky, Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns/Godowsky, Bizet/Godowsky & Albéniz/Godowsky. 6-Marston 56003, recorded 1937-89, Primarily Live Performances. Transfers by Ward Marston. Notes by Francis Crociata. - 638335600321
“This six-disc set is a compilation [comprising virtually all live performances] of huge importance for all lovers of the piano…[and] might help to bring Bolet more respect and admiration. Put simply, this represents one of the most important piano releases of recent years.
Bolet (1914-1990) was a throwback to an earlier era. The pianists he admired most were Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, and Cortot. At his best, Bolet displayed an improvisatory freedom that sounded as if the music was being made up on the spot, but that never distorted the music beyond its structural boundaries. That is the Bolet we hear throughout this wisely chosen set. Most of the performances are from the 1970s and 1980s, and are documented by Marston in the superb booklet….This might also be the place to praise Ward Marston for the transfers; he has managed a remarkable consistency of piano sound from dozens of sources ranging over many years. The sound on this set (some stereo, most monaural) is natural and warm throughout. Many of these recordings exist only because Bolet encouraged fans to record his concerts, so much of the material was recorded in house. That makes the basically good sound quality even more surprising. Most, however, of what makes this set remarkable is the playing itself. It is hard to think of anyone before the public today who plays like this. Bolet combines many qualities: beauty of tone, wonderful cantabile, brilliance of technique (there are very few missed or wrong notes throughout the almost eight hours of live playing here), an appreciation of structure but along with it a sense of fantasy and imagination that is truly rare. He will surprise you with a sudden shift in dynamics or tempo, the application of rubato in a way you weren’t expecting, but it always works, it always fits. You never feel jerked around, nor do you feel that any of these interpretive gestures are there for the purpose of calling attention to the pianist. No—this is the way he feels the music, the way he believes the piece should be shaped. While you are listening, you also believe that the music must go this way, even if it is contrary to what you thought you believed before you heard it this way.
Perhaps the most impressive thing throughout this set is the astonishing range of dynamics, which retain full color at both extremes. Fortissimi are thunderous, but never harsh; Bolet always manages to keep the sonority rich. The most delicate of pianissimi also retain a full body of sound, never get thin or tinkly. Another aspect worth noting is the phenomenal accuracy of the playing. In some of the most difficult of virtuoso showpieces, not only are all the notes there, but they are there with remarkable evenness of touch and tone. In the most frenetic passagework, every note is articulated with precision and just the right touch. And then there is the sense of sheer pleasure in playing, of fun, of improvisatory freedom, that makes you know that each performance you are hearing is unique. You just know that the next time he plays the same piece it is likely to be different, even significantly so.
Two…performances must be noted. One is the Liszt ’Don Juan Réminiscences’ from a 1975 New York recital. This stands with the famous Simon Barere live recording at the peak of what is possible in combining flamboyant virtuosity with genuine musicianship. On one level this music is about the physical thrill of superhuman accomplishment at the keyboard. But it is also one very serious musician’s take on the music of an earlier genius—Liszt channeling Mozart. Bolet demonstrates here, as he did in the Verdi and Donizetti transcriptions elsewhere in this set, that he understood singing and the fact that a vocal line lies at the base of this music. The sonority is rich, the flair and accuracy remarkable. This is the performance of a master. The other performance that cannot be ignored is the Liszt TANNHÄUSER transcription from a Carnegie Hall performance on 16 April, 1989.
Francis Crociata’s notes quote Donal Henahan’s New York Times review of this recital as follows: ‘It has always been a special pleasure to hear Jorge Bolet play the piano. The tall, ambassadorial-looking virtuoso’s technique is so brilliant and his control over it so complete that one could always attend his recitals in full confidence of being thrilled by a genuine master of the art of pianism’.”
- 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