My colleague Rob Barnett lauded the reissue of a tranche of Everest recordings, after a notable absence from the catalogue, in his article Return of the Prodigal
, last year. To add to the list, here are three recordings made by the pianist Jorge Bolet in 1960-61 playing Chopin, and the music of a composer in whom he excelled, Franz Liszt. This is all thanks to Countdown Media GmbH. These are CD-Rs, issued on demand, yet also available as downloads from HDtracks and itunes. The Chopin and Liszt Recitals are here making a reincarnation, but as to the previous issue on CD of ‘Song Without End’, I could find no evidence – perhaps someone could enlighten me.
The booklets explain the revolutionary recording methods that Everest employed. These were devised in 1958 by Harry Belock, the company’s founder. The recordings were made on 35mm magnetic tape - used in motion picture production - five times thicker than what was conventionally used at the time. The advantages were apparent - elimination of ‘print through’ and added durability preventing tape stretch, thus reducing ‘wow and flutter’ and pitch distortion.
Jorge Bolet (1914-1990) languished in relative obscurity for the early part of his career. After several early European tours in his twenties, he settled in the US 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 took American citizenship and joined the U.S. Army. He was sent to Japan and, whilst there, organized and conducted the Japanese premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado
Bolet represents, for many, the ‘old school’. 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
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’.
His fortunes change dramatically 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. He subsequently earned a lucrative contract from Decca.
Many have criticized Bolet’s studio recordings as lacking intensity and spontaneity, whilst in the live situation he could rise to the occasion, responding positively to the inspiration and atmosphere of the moment. This is true to some extent, but these early recordings have been a revelation to me, where I feel there are moments when his playing really catches fire. The Chopin selection showcases Bolet’s phenomenal technique and richness of tone. As each piece unfolds, his playing reveals an intelligent and refined mind. The booklet notes describe the selection of the composer’s popular pieces as the ‘all time Chopin hit parade’. The opening Op. 53 Polonaise is aristocratic yet thrilling. So too is the ‘Revolutionary’ Etude, which brims with spirit and gusto. The other Etude, No. 3 in E major is reined in and not overly-sentimentalized, which does mar some performances. The ‘Black Key’ Etude is dexterous and capricious. On the downside, the Fantasy Impromptu gets off to a bad start with the opening G sharp octave chord underpowered, ignoring Chopin’s sforzando
marking. The C sharp minor Waltz Op. 64, No. 2 is too slow and ponderous for my taste.
Liszt was the composer with whom Bolet was most closely associated throughout his career, and the B minor Sonata was the summit of the pianist’s achievements on record. This 1960 recording, whilst in more dated sound than the later 1983 Decca reading, is preferable in terms of sheer drama, imagination and excitement. The later traversal is over-cautious by comparison. This earlier reading is more spontaneous, with Bolet throwing all caution to the wind. It brings to mind Argerich’s early sixties recording on DG, similarly high-powered. Yet, Bolet can display warmth and intensity in the more lyrical passages, where required.
In the same year that the B minor Sonata was committed to disc, film producer William Goetz and director Charles Vidor decided to make the film ‘Song Without End’. This was based on the life of Franz Liszt, with Dirk Bogarde playing the lead role of the composer; what better person than Bolet to record the soundtrack. In the Piano Concerto there is a heady mix of rapture and lyricism. Bolet strives for tonal beauty and poetic insights in the adagio. Robert Irving provides admirable support, and the balance between piano and orchestra is ideal. Similar attributes are evident in the Hungarian Fantasy. The CD ends with a scintillating Mephisto waltz, the same recording as is found on the Liszt recital.
These CDs are of relatively short playing time, due to their corresponding to the original LP lengths, but this is not an issue for me. The original LP covers are reproduced on the front of each booklet. The notes, which are the original LP liner-notes are in English only, and it is an advantage to have the supplementary section on the recording methods of Harry Belock. I commend Everest for returning these valuable early recordings to their rightful place.
Masterwork Index: Liszt sonata