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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in A major, D959 (1828) [38:24]
Piano Sonata in A minor, D784 (1823) [20:18]
Jorge Bolet (piano)
rec. January/February 1989, St. Barnabas’ Church, London
Presto CD
DECCA 425837-2 [58:41]

Presto Classics continue their reissue of deleted CDs and I see that in June 2021 another 33 are due. This is a great service to collectors who may have missed the opportunity to purchase previously or some cases the recording may be “trapped” in a bigger collection.

The Cuban-born Jorge Bolet (1914-1990) had not previously featured in my CD collection although I had heard admiring comments from piano-playing friends. In April, I had the considerable pleasure of reviewing an earlier Presto reissue of Bolet’s recordings of Chopin Preludes (review) which seemed fully to justify its reissue. The present CD of a “late” Schubert masterpiece and a fine work on a smaller scale is of a high standard but may not have so wide an appeal in what is a ruthlessly competitive area. I understand that Bolet had a brain operation during 1989 from which he only partially recovered. He died of heart failure in October 1990, about twenty months after making these recordings. They are, as far as I’m aware, his only recordings of Schubert apart from some transcriptions by Liszt for whom Bolet secured some fame.

Schubert’s penultimate sonata written, along with those on either side, in his final months, is a masterpiece that, astonishingly was almost unknown. That was until taken up by the great Artur Schnabel in the 1930s. Schnabel’s recordings I unhesitatingly recommend to any lovers of fine piano playing provided they aren’t averse to the inevitable surface noise. In Decca’s excellent notes, the ever reliable Bryce Morrison mentions that Rachmaninov was unaware of these works at the time of the Schubert centenary in 1928. Jonathan Woolf gave a highly favourable recommendation of the Music and Arts set (Schnabel - review); I have a similar 5 CD collection from Warners that is currently on sale for 9.99. There is an overall atmosphere of unease, shades of his epic lieder song-cycle “Die Winterreise” D911 (Winter Journey) the minor key dominates and there is rarely much light. Schubert was undoubtedly aware that his days were limited, I wouldn’t assume that Bolet was also conscious but his was very much the approach of an “elder statesman” and very different from my benchmark which is Maurizio Pollini (DG). I should add that I was very much taken by Vladimir Feltsman on Nimbus, whose recordings of both sonatas is in Volume 4 of his highly individual survey of all the key Schubert sonatas (review). If I wasn’t totally convinced by Bolet in the opening movement, then his performance of the second Andantino is truly desolate and bereft of hope; perhaps Bolet saw this as the key movement. After the short Scherzo there is the magnificent Rondo: Allegretto which to me sums up what is wondrous about Schubert’s piano works. His basis of the melody comes from an earlier Sonata, D537 but what was a hesitant and ill-formed movement is here transformed into a creation which is both encouraging but also highly disturbing. Bolet gives a full-blooded performance and compared to the great Schubertian Alfred Brendel, who is almost nonpareil in this repertoire, considerably less controlled. All in all Bolet’s is a rendition that I thought very acceptable and well worth hearing.

Sonata D 784 may be on a smaller scale but those open ominous bars full of foreboding could only emanate from Schubert. As Bryce Morrison points out there are strong orchestral themes here. It was written soon after the “Wanderer Fantasy” D760 which significantly was orchestrated by Liszt. Bolet’s playing is excellent throughout and makes me regret he didn’t record more Schubert. My first impression was perhaps that he wasn’t temperamentally attuned but re-listening showed that he clearly thought highly of this music. In any event it’s always interesting to hear a different approach to these magnificent works. I should add that I feel his playing is nigh perfect and the recording in St Barnabas’ Church fits the music like a glove. I should add that Bolet avoids “banging” the keyboard; some pianists are prone to that miscalculation. The middle movement Andante is remarkable in going through so many nuances and emotions in less than five minutes. Bolet seems totally able to convey an inner sadness within the beauty; there is no attempt to “gild the lily”. If I could only play two movements from this CD, they would be the two second movements. Bolet plays the final beautiful and poignant Allegro Vivace with considerable aplomb and if this was one of his last recordings, what an impressive way to bow out.

I started this review uncertain how Bolet would fare with this music and at first I wasn’t totally convinced. Whilst I might not place him in the top purveyors of Schubert, I did thoroughly enjoy hearing him, particularly in D959, the more challenging work. There are many other fine recordings available but if you fancy a slightly different but satisfying approach then this CD is well worth purchasing. As ever, the CD and booklet is identical to the original with the words Presto on the CD.
David R Dunsmore

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