Jorge Bolet (piano) - Volume 2
Ambassador from the Golden Age: A Connoisseur’s Selection for the Bolet Centennial
rec. 1937-1989
MARSTON 56003-2 [6 CDs: 475:14]

This six disc set of live recordings of the Cuban-born American pianist Jorge Bolet (1914-1990) has been released by the classical and opera reissue label Marston, to celebrate the centenary of the pianist’s birth. Coincidentally, this year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death.

He was born in Havana and at the age of twelve was sent to study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Bolet's pedigree was notable, his teachers including many distinguished names: Leopold Godowsky, Josef Hofmann, David Saperton, Moriz Rosenthal and Fritz Reiner. Yet, he languished in relative obscurity for the early part of his career, overshadowed by the more glamorous profiles of Rubinstein and Horowitz. After several European tours in his twenties, he eventually settled in the States, becoming Rudolf Serkin’s assistant at the Curtis Institute in the late nineteen-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 hold a prominent place in Bolet's repertoire. When asked to help enhance his struggling 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 C. Schonberg made the unflattering remark that it was ‘keyboard magic without style or substance’. During these wilderness years, standing in for indisposed colleagues, Bolet honed to perfection his pellucid tone, developing a kaleidoscopic range of tonal colour.

It was the very same Harold C. Schonberg who later, in his obituary of the pianist, was to reassess his opinion and declare: ‘He played in his own way, and eventually the world caught up’ (New York Times, 23 October 1990). Quoted at the beginning of the accompanying booklet notes, this epithet aptly sums up the artist’s later fortunes and recognition. After years of financial hardship he secured an RCA contract and, 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. It is one of the most exciting piano recitals I have heard and his Strauss/Schulz-Evler ‘Arabesques on the Blue Danube’, without cuts, is a marvel to behold. In 1982, the pianist secured a contract with Decca, and the rest is history.

Bolet’s studio recordings have been criticized for being too manicured, too contrived and short on fantasy and spontaneity. This is true in some of his later Decca recordings, but there are exceptions. Examples include his Schubert/Liszt songs disc and the Liszt Suisse and Italie Years, imprinted with a unique, inspirational quality. In concert, in front of an audience, he somehow found the spark and his playing took flight and caught fire. Away from his concert hall comfort zone, the studio felt alien to him. On taking up his Decca contract, he asked the producers if they could tape his live concerts, which they did for artists like Shura Cherkassky. The request fell on deaf ears.

Fortunately for us, the pianist was not averse to the taping of his concerts, indeed he positively encouraged it. It is from this rich resource that Marston have quarried this wide and deep tranche of live material.

Beethoven performances by the pianist were rare, and mostly confined to more intimate gatherings. I have seen it documented that he performed the fourth and fifth concertos in concert. As for the sonatas, we have two here. From April 1974, Bolet performs the Sonata Op. 31 No.2 ‘Tempest’ to, what sounds like, a fairly intimate gathering. Sound quality is acceptable, though the piano is slightly recessed. It is a nicely-paced performance, with an instinctive grasp of structure and architecture. The Adagio is eloquent and notable for its delicacy and refinement. The finale conjures up the image of a horse galloping past a window. We have to turn the clock back thirty-five years to 1939 for the Sonata in E flat, Op.81a ‘Lebewohl’. Despite the surface noise, this is a terrific performance. The slow movement is pervaded with a sense of loss and loneliness. The finale is dazzling and delivered as a true vivacissimamente.

It was in the music of Franz Liszt that Bolet made his mark. This was a composer that the pianist did much to champion in an age when the popularity of his music had reached rock-bottom. The Ballade No. 2 in B minor, taped in 1985, is in fine sound and is the most electrifying performance of this work I have ever heard. It is an emotionally wide-ranging piece, captured here to tremendous effect. There is an underlying logicality to the way the opening minor key theme, with its stormy undercurrents, is transformed at the end into a major key cantabile theme of serene beauty and eloquence. From a concert on 3 October 1970 come two opera paraphrases - a captivating Donizetti-Liszt Lucia of scintillating virtuosity, and a Verdi-Liszt Rigoletto. The latter the pianist recorded for Decca in 1982. This live airing has all the excitement and spontaneity of an event caught on the wing, what Ira Levin, in his booklet contribution, refers to as ‘sorcery’, an element missing from the studio version. The same magical qualities can be found in the Mozart-Liszt Don Juan, but the sound quality of this 1975 reading isn’t as favourable.

In the Op. 117 Brahms Intermezzi, there is exquisite voicing of chords and clarity of the melodic line in No. 1. The second is heartfelt and lyrically expressed. The beauty of piano sound in the Haydn E flat Sonata is a joy to behold – was it a Baldwin? The Amsterdam audience were particularly bronchial that day in 1987. They were not, however, stricken to the same extent as the New Yorkers were in 1975 for the Voříšek Impromptu. I was reminded of a documentary where Alfred Brendel related a similar experience, where he actually stopped playing and addressed the audience: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I can hear you, but I doubt if you can hear me.’

The Schubert G flat Impromptu is disappointing and doesn’t really work. It is laboured, hesitant and world-weary. Maybe he was having an off-night. Bolet’s Chopin is defined by aristocratic refinement, poetic insights, subtle rubato and a myriad range of tonal colour. The F minor Fantasy is passionate and abounds in heroic gestures. The Nocturne Op. 48 No. 2 is invested with elegance and poetic engagement. The Chopin-Godowsky Studies are carried off with panache and formidable virtuosity. The deft, crystalline finger-work of Study No. 12 (after Op. 10 No. 5) will be the envy of many pianists. The ubiquitous Clair de Lune, stands head and shoulders above the other pieces in the Debussy selection. From a private recording made in 1980, the diaphanous texture and colour Bolet achieves is a delight.

Bolet was a great admirer of Rachmaninov, and performed his music instinctively and sympathetically. The Variations on a Theme of Chopin is sadly neglected, and Bolet’s championing of it (he later recorded it for Decca) is welcome. The Polka of V.R., a piece I love, is lavished with subtle rubato. It certainly gives Horowitz a run for his money.

So much is compelling in this set, but I’ll mention a few more works which took my fancy. First there's Bach’s Toccata in D from a transcription disc of 1944. Despite the aging sound, Bolet’s clarity of articulation and teasing out of polyphonic strands is to be marvelled at. A ravishing Schwanda Fantasy (after Weinberger) by Abram Chasins is a rarity I’ve never come across before. In superb sound from Edinburgh 1980 is the Weber-Godowsky Invitation to the dance – an attractive, rhythmically buoyant lollipop, dispatched with élan.

Ward Marston, the founder of Marston Records, is to be commended for the re-mastering and release of these treasures, showcasing the ‘other’ Bolet, from outside the studio. Considering the provenance of these live airings, sound quality is variable, but this is a small price to pay for such top-notch pianism. Included is a sixteen page essay (in English only) by Francis Crociata, detailing the life and career of the pianist. There is also a personal reminiscence by Ira Levin, Bolet’s one-time student and later teaching assistant. If that weren’t enough, the booklet is adorned with a cache of black and white photographs of the pianist, none of which I had seen before. For connoisseurs of the keyboard this is a very welcome release. There could be no better centenary tribute.

Stephen Greenbank

CD 1 [78:16]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Three Intermezzi, Op. 117
1. No. 1 in E flat [4:52]
2. No. 2 in B flat Minor [4:42]
3. No. 3 in Csharp Minor [5:15]
11 December 1983, Amsterdam
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Sonata No. 62 in E flat, Hob. XVI/52
4. I Allegro Moderato [6:51]
5. II Adagio [5:59]
6. III Finale: Presto [4:19]
22 February 1987, Amsterdam
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Fantasy in F sharp Minor, Op. 28
7. I Con moto agitato [6:02]
8. II Allegro con moto [2:46]
9. III Presto [4:59]
27 December 1981, San Francisco
10. Variations sérieuses, Op. 54 [12:32 ]
27 October 1974, New York City
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2, “Tempest”
11. I Allegro [6:14]
12. II Adagio [8:22]
13. III Allegretto [5:24]
7 April 1974, New York City

CD 2 [79:50]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
1. Fantasy in F Minor, Op. 49 [13:04]
7 April 1974, New York City
2. Etude in E Minor, Op. 25, No. 5 [3:40]
22 February 1987, Amsterdam
3. Waltz in D flat, Op. 64, No. 1, “Minute” [2:00]
22 February 1987, Amsterdam
4. Waltz in E Minor, Op. Posth. [3:06]
2 February 1984, New York City
5. Nocturne in F sharp Minor, Op. 48, No. 2 [9:26]
12 March 1985, Philadelphia
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)/Franz LISZT (1811-1886) 
6. Réminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor, S. 397 [6:20]
3 October 1970, New York City
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)/Franz LISZT
7. Rigoletto: Concert paraphrase, S. 434 [7:05]
3 October 1970, New York City
8. Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, S. 244 [10:41]
27 October 1974, New York City
9. Venezia e Napoli: Gondoliera, S. 162, No. 1 [5:06]
11 December 1983, Amsterdam
10. Venezia e Napoli: Tarantella, S. 162, No. 3 [9:34]
11 December 1983, Amsterdam
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)/Franz LISZT
11. Spinnerlied aus Der fliegende Holländer, S. 440 [5:14]
11 November 1971, New York City
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)/Franz LISZT
12. Widmung, S. 566 [3:50]
11 November 1971, New York City

CD 3 [79:06]
1. Ballade No. 2 in B Minor, S. 171 [15:14]
3 November 1985, Minneapolis
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Prelude, Aria, and Finale
2. Prelude [10:06]
3. Aria [6:23]
4. Finale [7:35]
26 May 1974, Arnhem, The Netherlands
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
5. Ballade in G Minor, Op. 24 [19:46]
22 February 1987, Amsterdam
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
6. Danseuses de Delphes (No. 1 from Préludes, Book I) [3:41]
7. La sérénade interrompue (No. 9 from Préludes, Book I) [2:22]
8. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (No. 7 from Préludes, Book II) [4:54]
9. Feux d’artifice (No. 12 from Préludes, Book II) [4:06]
7 April 1974, New York City
10. Clair de lune (No. 3 from Suite Bergamasque) [5:00]
1980 private recording; Baldwin LP BDW 701

CD 4 [79:55]
Jan Václav Hugo VOŘÍŠEK (1791-1825)
1. Impromptu in E, Op. 7, No. 5 [4:55]
8 March 1975, New York City
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
2. Impromptu in G flat, Op. 90 (D. 899), No. 3 [7:14]
2 October 1988, Carmel, California
Paul de SCHLOZER (1841-1898)
3. Etude in A flat, Op. 1, No. 2 [3:14]
26 May 1974, Arnhem, The Netherlands
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1875-1943)
4. Prelude in G flat, Op. 23, No. 10 [3:34]
5. Prelude in F Minor, Op. 32, No. 6 [1:25]
6. Prelude in F, Op. 32, No. 7 [2:32]
7. Prelude in G sharp Minor, Op. 32, No. 12 [2:33]
6 January 1966, Berlin
8. Variations on a theme of Chopin, Op. 22 [30:03]
11 December 1983, Amsterdam
9. Polka de V.R. [4:46]
23 February 1974, Amsterdam
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)/Sergei RACHMANINOV
10. Lullaby [4:09]
15 March 1978, Philadelphia
Abram CHASINS (1903-1987)
11. Prelude No. 14 in E flat Minor, Op. 12, No. 2 [2:18]
7 December 1987, Bonn
12. Prelude No. 15 in B flat Minor, Op. 12, No. 3 [1:27]
7 December 1987, Bonn
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)/Leopold GODOWSKY (1870-1938)
13. Invitation to the Dance, Op. 65 [11:47]
25 August 1980, Edinburgh

CD 5 [79:56]
Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)/Leopold GODOWSKY
1. Minuet in A Minor (No. 3 from Renaissance) [5:15]
18 January 1980, Atlanta
2. Rosamunde: Ballet Music [3:03]
11 December 1983, Amsterdam
3. Moment Musical, Op. 94 (D. 780), No. 3 [2:10]
14 February 1978, Philadelphia (Intimate gathering)
Frédéric CHOPIN/Leopold GODOWSKY
4. Study No. 25 (after Op. 25, No. 1) [3:42]
10 October 1976, Amsterdam
5. Study No. 5 (after Op. 10, No. 3, for the left hand) [6:14]
15 March 1979, Philadelphia
6. Study No. 7 (after Op. 10, No. 5) [1:57]
10 October 1976, Amsterdam
7. Study No. 12 (after Op. 10, No. 5) 2:09 8. Study No. 13 (after Op. 10, No. 6, for the left hand) [4:22]
11 December 1983, Amsterdam
9. Study No. 15 (after Op. 10, No. 7) 4:30 10. Study No. 1 (after Op. 10, No. 1) [2:16]
15 March 1979, Philadelphia
11. Waltz in D flat, Op. 64, No. 1, “Minute” [2:30]
1965, Berlin
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-189)/Leopold GODOWSKY
12. Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes from Die Fledermaus [10:09]
17 May 1973, Köln
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)/ Leopold GODOWSKY
13. Ständchen, Op. 17, No. 2 [3:05]
18 April 1980, New York City
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)/Leopold GODOWSKY
14. The Swan (from Carnival of the Animals) [2:53]
26 May 1974, Arnhem, The Netherlands
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)/Leopold GODOWSKY
15. Adagietto (from L’Arlésienne, Suite No. 1) [2:49]
22 February 1987, Amsterdam
Isaac ALBENIZ (1860-1909)/Leopold GODOWSKY
16. Tango in D, Op. 165, No. 2 [3:58]
15 March 1979, Philadelphia
17. Elegy (for the left hand) [3:12]
19 July 1982, College Park, Maryland
18. The Gardens of Buitenzorg (No. 8 from Java Suite) [4:43 ]
28 November 1983, Milan
19. The Salon (No. 21 from Triakontameron) [3:00]
7 April 1974, New York City
Moritz MOSZKOWSKI (1854-1925)
20. Caprice Espagnole, Op. 37 [6:01 ]
16 March 1961, Köln
21. La Jongleuse, Op. 52, No. 4 [1:58]
26 May 1974, Arnhem, The Netherlands

CD 6 [78:11]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
1. Toccata in D, BWV 912 [11:03]
1944, location unknown; Lira Panamericana transcription disc
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
2. Rondo in D, K. 485 [5:20]
1944, location unknown; Lira Panamericana transcription disc
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Sonata No. 26 in E flat, Op. 81a, “Lebewohl”
3. I Das Lebewohl: Adagio—Allegro [6:40]
4. II Abwesenheit: Andante espressivo [3:49]
5. III Das Wiedersehen: Vivacissimamente [3:58]
30 October 1939, Philadelphia
6. Prelude in E flat, Op. 23, No. 6 [2:43]
20 October 1937, Philadelphia
7. Schwanda Fantasy (after Weinberger) [6:58]
1944, location unknown; Lira Panamericana transcription disc
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART/Franz LISZT
8. Réminiscences de Don Juan, S. 418 [18:43]
9 November 1975, New York City
Richard WAGNER/Franz LISZT
9. Tannhäuser: Overture, S. 442 [18:28]
16 April 1989, New York City