Jorge Bolet spent the early part of his career in the wilderness. After several European tours in his twenties, he settled in the USA and became Rudolf Serkin’s assistant at the Curtis Institute in the late ’thirties; succeeding him in 1977. During the war he took up a diplomatic post as cultural attaché at the Cuban Embassy in Washington. In 1942 he became an American citizen, joined the U.S. army and was sent to Japan. Whilst there he organized and conducted the Japanese premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Mikado’. In 1960 he provided the piano soundtrack to the film ‘Song Without End’, featuring Dirk Bogarde in the role of Franz Liszt – a composer who was to play an important part in Bolet’s life.
The Cuban pianist, born in 1914, represented for many the ‘old school’. An excellent 9 CD box brought out by Decca this year is entitled ‘The Last Romantic’, an apposite title, though Horowitz had that epithet attributed to him also. His pedigree was notable; he was a protégé of Leopold Godowsky, Josef Hofmann and Moritz Rosenthal. His early career was overshadowed by the more glamorous profiles of Rubinstein and Horowitz. When asked to help enhance his career, the American composer, pianist and musicologist Abram Chasins remarked to him: ‘You play fast, but you don’t sound fast’. The critics slated him for what was perceived as an anachronistic style, which placed emphasis on romantic virtuosity. Harold Schonberg made the unflattering remark that it was ‘keyboard magic without style or substance’.
All of that changed on 25 February 1974. A recital at New York’s Carnegie Hall catapulted him from obscurity to international public recognition. A recording of this memorable event, which was issued in the Philips ‘Great Pianists of the 20th
Century’ series, captures the magic of the occasion. Those with an interest in this pianist should seek it out; it is one of the most exciting piano recitals I have heard and, surely, his Strauss/Schulz-Evler ‘Arabesques on the Blue Danube’ must be one of the most thrilling in recorded history … and without cuts. A Decca contract ensued and the rest is history.
All of the qualities that distinguish Bolet’s playing are evident here. The poetic melodic line above the arpeggiated harp figuration in Mendelssohn’s Prelude in e minor, Op. 35 No. 1 is exquisitely achieved. In the fugue he delineates the polyphonic strands with clarity. In the Rondo Capriccioso, the Andante section is nicely paced and elegant. The Presto sparkles with rhythmic audacity. The highpoint is the Beethoven ‘Appassionata’. As far as I can gather, this is the only recording of a Beethoven sonata by Bolet in the catalogue, so is a valuable addition to his discography. A noble performance, Bolet’s intellectual grasp of structure and architecture makes this compelling.
Liszt was a composer in whose music Bolet excelled and the ‘Reminiscences de Norma’ serves as a showcase for the pianist’s virtuosic technique. The sonority he achieves in the forte sections is awesome. The remaining items bring to mind his fellow pianist Shura Cherkassky, who was also a Hofmann student and shone in this repertoire. Like Cherkassky, Bolet produces a ravishing, rich and rounded tone, swathed in a wash of tonal colour.
For this release Hänssler Classic have tapped the archive of the Schwetzingen SWR Festival, which holds around 550 broadcasts. Bolet’s recital took place on 14 May 1988. The reproduced sound is exemplary and of studio quality. Audience participation seems notably absent, with applause edited out. Liner-notes, in German and English are by Peter Cossé. Especially with the inclusion of the Beethoven sonata as an added bonus, Bolet fans can buy this release with confidence.
Masterwork Index: Beethoven