Friday, 31 May 2013

Review: Liszt - Transcendental Studies - Jorge Bolet - Ensayo (1970) & DECCA (1985)

If there ever was a definitive performance, this is it!

It's an interesting topic for speculation whether I suffer from the FRS (First Recording Syndrome). Jorge Bolet's late recording for DECCA was the first complete set of Liszt's Transcendental Studies I ever heard, quite a long time ago, and it still remains by far the finest one. Even after all those years, and after a number of alternatives, some good (Arrau, Ovchinnikov, Ott, Stanev, Howard), some bad (Berman, Cziffra, Berezovsky), no one seems to be even remotely in the same league as Jorge Bolet. The only other complete recording I am ready to rank with Bolet's is his own first attempt, made as early as 1970 for the perfectly obscure label Ensayo. Yet even this stupendous performance, though more technically accomplished than the later one, falls short in terms of poetic depth.

Now I fully understand that Bolet's intensely personal approach to the keyboard is not everybody's cup of tea. Oddly enough, it isn't mine, either. Somehow, however, Bolet manages to get away with slow tempi and emotional restraint I would never forgive another pianist. Similar tempi in lesser hands, and minds, do sound sluggish, awkward, contrived, mannered, you name it. Similar poise and control often lead to sophomoric – and soporific – performances of deadly dullness. Not Jorge Bolet. Under his fingers even the slowest possible tempi make perfect sense and sound utterly convincing. I guess the secret is that he doesn't rely on sharp contrasts, but rather on subtle fluctuations, in this respect.
This is a very lame ''explanation'', one that explains nothing of the mystery of miraculous musical creation by great artists, but I'm afraid I can't think of a better one.

Bolet's tone – almost always produced on Bechstein or Baldwin, rather than on the proverbial Steinway – is another of those pianistic miracles one doesn't find in the youngsters today. It is suave, smooth, silky, velvety; in short, impossible to describe. The dynamic range and the sonority are enormous, almost orchestral, even sometimes reminding me of a mighty organ in a vast cathedral; yet never is there any banging, any virtuosity for virtuosity's sake, any foolish bravado for cheap accolades. For Bolet music always came first, and he was always capable to infuse even the most often played piece with fresh poetry that makes you re-think what you thought you knew. He never plays to the gallery. He is never dull or ordinary. He is incomparable and indescribable.

With the possible exception of Vladimir Horowitz, never have I heard another pianist who brings out more inner voices and forgotten details without ever degrading a composition to a mass of details than Jorge Bolet. Nor, with the same exception in mind, have I ever heard a more unique and instantly recognisable artist than Jorge Bolet. Strangely enough, no other two pianists can be more different than Bolet and Horowitz: listening to the same piece played by both of them is to listen to two completely different works. Even more strangely, Horowitz played but a few of the Transcendental Studies (early in his career) and never recorded even one, while Bolet played them regularly throughout his life and recorded them complete twice: 1970 for Ensayo, as already mentioned, and 1985 for DECCA, the recording that is being reviewed here. It is not stretching a point to suggest that these marvellous works always brought out the very best in Jorge Bolet.

We need keep mind, however, that Jorge Bolet (15.XI.1914 – 16.X.1990) recorded his Transcendental Studies for DECCA when he was in his 71st year: March 1985, St. Barnabas Church, London. So the bad news, if it may be called thus, is that Bolet's tempi are even slower than usual and that occasionally – most notably in the main theme of Mazeppa and the climax of Eroica – his playing may somewhat lack power, especially in the left hand. As a matter of fact, Bolet's Transcendental Studies for DECCA, running for 74 minutes overall, are most probably the slowest ever recorded. Timings are misleading stuff, but in this particular case they are instructive:

I have never ever heard anybody stretching Wilde Jagd to 6:30, Harmonies du Soir to 10:40 and Eroica to 5:30 – let alone Mazeppa to nearly nine or the second study to almost three minutes. Yet timings are misleading, even in this particular case. Judging by them alone, one might be tempted to expect vapid and colourless renditions entirely lacking fire and drama. Far from it.

Let's take Mazeppa for example. It is generally acknowledged to be one of the most challenging works in the set and many a passionate virtuoso have tried – and succeeded – to turn it into a shallow display of pyrotechnics and a truly disgusting cacophony, Boris Berezovsky in his video concert being by far the most notable example. Quite apart from that, tons of wise words have been written about the explicit program of the study, of its highly descriptive nature, galloping horses and all. This is a farrago of nonsense. Even the eponymous symphonic poem (a much extended and transformed version of the piano piece), though more programmatic than the etude, is rather vaguely reminiscent of Hugo's poem printed by way of preface in the score which is supposed to have inspired Liszt. I have listened to Mazeppa quite a number of times, yet I have never been able to bother myself with all that programmatic junk about a nobleman tied to a wild horse, etc., etc. Charming imagery, no doubt, but it is more suitable for listeners (and pianists) with very poor imagination.

What makes Bolet's Mazeppa a unique experience is precisely the fact that it transcends completely such inanity as programs. The left hand in the main theme may be weak, but the theme itself – in the right hand – has rare and poignant nobility. Mind you, the etude doesn't in the least lack power or grandeur, either. Even at 70 Bolet was still capable of stupendous technical feats and he coaxes from his Bechstein tremendous sonority. Note now he plays the descending chords that appear several times during the piece: slowly but with extraordinary gradation in dynamics and impeccable articulation. Passages like these, a mere bravura display in others' hands, make much more sense under Bolet's fingers. I have never heard any other pianist, especially in Liszt's Transcendental Studies, with whom every note matters so much.

If Bolet is slightly handicapped technically in studies like Mazeppa or Eroica, there is more than ample compensation for that: numerous nuances that are usually completely lost amidst rushing and banging. And it would be a gross mistake to underestimate Bolet's technical prowess indeed. His Wilde Jagd, in addition to the lovely middle part, has fabulously powerful opening and simply mind-blowing finale. Nor is the slow tempo in No. 10 at expense of its tension and drama, both captured with an almost frightening intensity. The improvisatory nature of Preludio, the haunting world of the Second study, the mystical grandeur of Vision, the whimsical mischievousness of Feux Follets or the desolate bleakness of Chasse-neige are superbly conveyed by Jorge Bolet, with poetic depth as yet unsurpassed.

Many listeners, I daresay, might miss the devil-may-care virtuosity of Berman and Berezovsky, but not me. There is infinitely more in Liszt's Transcendental Studies than knuckle-breaking pyrotechnics. With enough practice, everybody can play fast and loud: music schools and conservatories are full of spectacular technicians that may well toss off the complete set between two coffees. But to infuse these overplayed yet underestimated pieces with originality not at the expense of their musicality, to reveal the hidden secrets and to convert them into tone poems: that is quite another story. Bolet's interpretations have the precious combination of inimitably unique character and a musicianship of a very high order. For my part, in these works he is without peer, let alone rival.

Apart from the aforementioned early recording for Ensayo, I have never heard anybody in any of the Transcendental Studies who even comes close to Bolet's profound mastery and understanding – his closest rival in terms of philosophical approach to the keyboard (Claudio Arrau) firmly included. But when I come to the most lyrical of the studies – Paysage, Ricordanza, Harmonies du Soir and, to some extent, Chasse-neige – Bolet is absolutely peerless. There is a recording of the young Kissin of the third of these which I used to like long time ago, but it gradually lost the battle with Bolet's spontaneous poise, if you allow the oxymoron. I have yet to hear the dreamy, other-worldly quality of the first two studies from the above list better captured by anybody else, either. Listening to Bolet's Chasse-neige makes me realise why many Lisztians consider this to be the finest piece in the set. Bolet turns this masterpiece, again, into something much more than a mere snow-storm.

In short, magnificent disc of great music played in a regal manner, but with no ostentation whatsoever, by one of the finest artists at the keyboard (as opposed to mere pianists) from the last century. In his late recordings for DECCA, particularly those from the second half of the 1980s, Jorge Bolet was always capable to turn his mild technical shortcomings into immense artistic advantages. This is precisely what he has done here, and what makes this disc my absolutely desert-island rendition of the Transcendental Studies.

The original DECCA issue is of course long since out of print, but second-hand copies in fine condition are stupendously cheap. Besides, you can find these wonderful performances as Disc 7 from Bolet's complete Liszt recordings for DECCA which is very much in print and comes at super-bargain price. One little bonus of the original edition are the concise and perceptive liner notes of Bryce Morrison.

P. S. DECCA's digital sound is fine, but it could have been done better, that is less clangy in the high register and more sonorous in the lower one. No matter. Minor quibble that does not detract from the greatness of Bolet's vision.

Bolet's Bolet, and that's that!

This is a priceless recording. Еvery Bolet buff should be grateful it is available. For this is a rare opportunity to compare Bolet in his absolute prime with his late recording legacy for DECCA which is largely, but mistakenly, thought to be stodgy stuff of little value. What finer yardstick could we have than a complete recording of Liszt's Transcendental Studies, that rare amalgam of pyrotechnics and poetry?

Let's first put both recordings into some kind of historical perspective. All repetitions are deliberate.

Jorge Bolet made the recording for Ensayo in 1970, when was but 55-56 years old and largely unknown; this was four years before his now legendary recital in Carnegie Hall which made him a star almost overnight. In the late 1970s, when he himself was in his late sixties, Bolet signed his first contract with major label (DECCA) and recorded prolifically almost until the end of his life (1990). In March 1985, aged 70, he made his second complete recording of the Studies, now available second-hand separately or as a part of the wonderful box set with Bolet's complete Liszt recordings. So there is a difference between both recordings of some 15 years, during which Bolet's technical prowess, even his artistry indeed, is supposed to have degenerated. This is tosh.

The usual and widely known notion is that Bolet's late recording of the Transcendental Studies is much too slow to be taken seriously, whereas his early one is much faster and more virtuosic. It is true, of course, that the Ensayo rendition is more powerful, but a comparison of the timings shows that, overall, it is but slightly faster than its later counterpart (in round brackets: the timing of the same piece from the DECCA recording):

1. Prelude 1:00 (1:04)
2. [Molto Vivace] 2:45 (2:56)
3. Paysage 4:40 (4:50)
4. Mazeppa 8:05 (8:55)
5. Feux follets 4:10 (4:32)
6. Vision 5:54 (6:21)
7. Eroica 5:14 (5:31)
8. Wilde Jagd 6:17 (6:30)
9. Ricordanza 10:55 (10:52)
10. [Allegro agitato molto] 5:04 (5:30)
11. Harmonies du soir 10:18 (10:42)
12. Chasse-neige 5:23 (6:07)

It will be noticed that, more often than not, the difference in the timings is negligible (nos. 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 11) or there is virtually no difference at all (nos. 1 and 9). The etudes that are conspicuously faster for Ensayo do not necessarily profit from that. The mystical atmosphere of Vision and Chasse-neige is somewhat lost here, nor is No. 10 any more compelling because it is nearly half a minute faster. The biggest and most obvious difference – both temporally and aurally – is of course Mazeppa which is nearly a minute longer and does not have the somewhat underpowered left hand that slightly mars the late recording for DECCA. Significantly, Mazeppa for Ensayo gains in terms of grandeur and drama, but it lacks the subtlety and the poetry of the later version. 

The bottom line, however, is this: apart from slightly faster tempi and more powerful left hand, the earlier recording is very similar to the later one. In virtually every study – the shortest one included! – there are a number of unique touches that put Bolet's entirely in a class of his own. I am reminded of his humorous statement that he himself couldn't sense that maturity in his playing that was supposed to mark his late years (according to the critics) but had been missing in his early ones. Small wonder he couldn't: it is imaginary.

There is no possible way to mistake Bolet's artistry, especially in the Transcendental Studies, with that of anybody else, no matter whether you will hear the early recording for Ensayo or the late one for DECCA. Personally, I do prefer the latter, for it is more insightful and poetic, and I have never much cared for a technical tour de force at the expense of the music as so often is the case with these works. Yet the sweeping power and passion of the earlier recording makes it well worth listening to. Amazingly, Bolet's legendary technique – praised highly by the cool-headed Harold Schonberg himself, no less – is never at the expense of melodic lines, nor does it ever degenerate into mere banging or rushing. His characteristic poise is as evident here as anywhere else in his discography, and it makes for a compelling combination with the awesome power of his playing. Indeed, my only quibbles, artistically, with this recording stem from the comparison with Bolet's later attempt for DECCA. On its own, the early interpretation for Ensayo is miles ahead from that of any other pianist in my listening experience.

The only real trouble with this recording is the sound. It is decent enough to be listenable, but it is more appropriate for something recorded in 1950, rather than in 1970. The balance is fine, yet the bass is often flat and the overall sonority and dynamic range are limited. These are certainly not Bolet's faults. But one should try to understand. Not only was the recording made more than 40 years ago, but it was made for a very obscure label and in, of all places, a casino in Barcelona, God (should He exist) knows on what piano and with whom as a recording engineer (there is nothing mentioned in the booklet about either of these issues). At any rate, the indifferent sound is a very small price to pay for such blend of power and poetry.

The booklet is just as indifferent as the sound, containing one dull essay in English and Spanish. As a special bonus, however, there is a gorgeous full-page photo of the Bolet in his prime. It is immediately clear why he has been described as being more like a buccaneer or a successful businessman or a matinee idol, rather than like a concert pianist.

For Bolet buffs, the disc is of course indispensable. So is for Liszt buffs, but only if they are not members of the Berman-Berezovsky-Cziffra gang. If you are chiefly interested in the technical side of the Studies – a harmless interest, at all events – then you definitely should skip Bolet and go for the aforementioned trio of bangers. I surmise loud banging is what most people call ''excitement'' in these pieces. Well, some of us are not so easily excited, alas. If you care much more for the music itself, subtle and suggestive as no other music for solo piano, you may just as well find something memorable in Bolet's version. For me, personally, he remains untouchable in the Studies. Only Claudio Arrau has ever timidly approached his mastery, but even the great Chilean is sometimes rushed or insensitive, or plain dull. Bolet never is.

Review: Jorge Bolet reDiscovered - RCA, 1972-73

Is Bolet in his prime so different than in his late recordings for DECCA 
as we are asked to believe?

The answer, quite simply, is No!

In his otherwise very fine essay in the booklet to this CD, Jon Samuels writes some pure junk like the following:

While his fingers were always beautifully expressive, toward the end of his life his approach could sometimes seem fussy and pedantic. Also, like many artists, Bolet could be more reticent in the studio than before a live audience.

Leaving aside the studio-live conundrum, on this disc we have an excellent proof that Bolet in his prime, recording for RCA in 1972-73, was hardly different than the late Bolet, recording for DECCA between 1978 and 1982. (Of course Bolet continued his late recordings almost until the end of his life, the last one being made in 1989, but almost all of his Liszt recordings were finished by the middle of the 1980s.) It has been said so often that it has become an annoying cliché: the late Bolet for DECCA was ''ponderous'', ''stodgy'', ''calculating'', ''inhibited'' etc. charming epithets, whereas the early one was way more dashing and dazzling. Some rather nasty people have even suggested that Bolet's late recordings were deliberately slow in order for him to pass as a profound artist in the end of his career and, respectively, for the future generations. This is a farrago of nonsense. We needn't look further that this priceless RCA recital and Bolet's complete late Liszt recordings box set for DECCA.

Liner notes by Jon Samuels.
Liner notes by Jon Samuels.
There are nine pieces on this disc and the first seven of them Bolet re-recorded for DECCA between 1978 and 1982, that is only six to ten years after the RCA sessions. It is remarkable, to say the least, how similar the two groups of recordings are! For lovers of timings it may be surprising to know that only three pieces are actually faster in the earlier versions (Funerailles, La Campanella and Grand Galop Chromatique) and the biggest difference is mere 15 seconds or so; the DECCA versions of rest four pieces are faster than their RCA counterparts, though the differences here are even more miserable. So much for Bolet being far slower in his late years than in his prime, another famous misconception! Leaving timings aside, the playing, on the whole, is more powerful and less restrained in the RCA recordings, but the differences here are negligible, too. Besides, if slightly faster tempi or a little more panache certainly does good to La Campanella and Grand Galop Chromatique, I am not at all sure this is the case with Un Sospiro, Waldesrauschen or the third piece from the set Liebesträume.

Booklet and CD.
The bottom line is that Bolet's artistry – love it or hated, it doesn't matter – cannot possibly be mistaken for anybody else's, neither in his RCA recordings nor in his DECCA ones. Bolet's notorious change in his late years is more or less entirely fictional: his restraint in Funerailles, for once carried a little too far, is quite evident in the early RCA recording, too. Incidentally, Jorge himself once expressed grave doubt about this artificially created change: ''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.'' Bullseye! And a good reason to reflect on the unduly influence of slick pseudo-critics and other pernicious opinion-makes. But that is another story!

It must be admitted, however, that in the second half of the 1980s Bolet's playing did become more introverted and more contemplative. So the differences with recordings from the late 1960s and early 1970s naturally became bigger, as clearly shown by his two traversals of the complete Transcendental Studies: 1970 for Ensayo and 1985 for DECCA. Yet even here, as I have already written elsewhere, the differences are by far not as great as some people enjoying superficial comparisons would have us believe. What's more, these differences are generally beneficial to the music.

The last two pieces on this disc Bolet did not record during his association with DECCA. And that makes them by the far the most important ones on the disc – which is indeed well worth having because of them only.

Mr Samuels' fine description of Bolet's playing as a combination of the ''seemingly contradictory elements of elegance and virtuosity'' may well be applied to the Rhapsodie Espagnole where Bolet's tone is indeed ''majestic; his fingers are never hurried, and he always avoids the cheap effect.'' It is also worth noting that Mr Samuels touchingly defends Bolet's notorious habit of changing Liszt's original text; the Rhapsodie provides an interesting example of this, as in the finale Bolet used a ''bravura octave passage from Busoni's arrangement for piano and orchestra.'' Fascinatingly enough, Vladimir Horowitz, though an artistic personality entirely different than Bolet, did almost always make alterations to the Liszt pieces in his repertoire. Bolet's notion that he did these changes because he thought Liszt himself would have approved of them might seem outrageously presumptuous to the modern day puritans, but I am not one of them. For my part, the originality of a Horowitz or a Bolet,
the powerful and compelling personality that they bring to their interpretations – for we should never forget that without performance music makes no sense at all – fully justifies whatever liberties they might have thought worth their while to introduce.

The story how this recording of the Tannhäuser Overture came to exist is already well-known thanks to Mr Samuels' liner notes. Apparently, the whole thing happened on July 16, 1973, in one take and almost by accident, when Bolet decided to ''play a run-through'' of the piece before leaving the studio. He played the whole overture – more than 16 minutes long! – and only the standard procedure of two recording machines operating at the same time saved the recording for future generations; the technicians were totally unprepared for what they witnessed and later had to do some overlapping of tapes in order to get the complete performance, even though it was played in one take and without any pauses. Incredible story all right, but I'll take Mr Samuels' word for it.

So we have here, reportedly, a performance recorded on the spot and apparently completely unedited. Comparison with Bolet's justly legendary recording from his stupendous Carnegie Hall recital next year is of course inevitable and, it must be stressed, not in favour of the studio version. Yet again, however, such instances have been exaggerated to an appalling degree, yielding another legend: Bolet is infinitely better live than he is the studio. And this is a perfect nonsense, too. To be sure, the studio version doesn't quite have the élan of the live recording, and it contains some notes which are so wrong that even my highly inexperienced ears capture them. All the same, Bolet's studio rendition of the Tannhäuser Overture is far superior in every aspect – phrasing, inner voices, power, clarity – than any other performance I have ever heard, Howard, Cziffra and Moiseiwitsch firmly included.

As for the sound on this disc, it is fine for its time though in no way exceptional. There is a slight tape hiss and sometimes (most notably in Tannhäuser, alas) the bass is lacking in depth, but on the whole the sound is pleasantly natural and devoid of the jarring high notes that many of Bolet's DECCA recordings (as well as his Carnegie Hall recital, for that matter) suffer from. At any rate, nobody but a pathological audiophile would complain about the sound quality of this disc. And nobody but a person completely indifferent to piano playing would pay any attention to it.

In conclusion, this is certainly Jorge Bolet at his best, even if that best is not so far removed from his late recordings for DECCA as some superficial folk would lead us believe. For Bolet fans the disc is well-nigh priceless, partly because of the rare opportunity to compare his recordings of the same pieces made in different years but above all because of the stunning renditions of Rhapsodie Espagnole and Tannhäuser Overture. Both of these works, the latter especially, are only too easy to be made a musical mess of by a pianist whose fingers are faster than his brain. Not Jorge Bolet. Not a single bar does he play without the big picture in mind. Those who are new to Bolet could hardly find a better introduction to his artistry than this disc – to say nothing of its amazingly low price. The chances are that if you don't like him here, you wouldn't in his DECCA or Ensayo recordings either, even though the latter were made just a few years earlier and the former a decade or so later than the RCA ones.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Review: Rachmaninoff - Solo Piano Works - Jorge Bolet - DECCA, 1986-87

Intensely personal Rachmaninoff

This title is simply a euphemism for disappointment. I am an incorrigible Bolet buff and would normally give five stars to more or less all of his recordings (which are not so numerous, alas). For once, however, I don't find his musicianship fully convincing, at least in two of the pieces on this disc. Rachmaninoff buffs (of which company too am I) may just as well be warned that Bolet's interpretations are every bit as controversial as his choice of program: a massive set of variations, five preludes from Opp. 23 and 32, Melodie Op. 3 No. 3 and, by way of encores, Rachmaninoff's transcriptions of Kreisler's Liebesleid and Liebesfreud.

Tracks listing and recording details.
Rachmaninoff's Chopin Variations Op. 22 is a fairly early work, written in 1903 when Sergei was 30, that has been sadly neglected, rather unlike his much later Corelli Variations (1931). It is recorded but occasionally, most recently by Lugansky I think, and taken seriously even more seldom. The work does contain some pastiche here and there, but it is a fine testimony of Rachmaninoff's pianistic genius. He takes the noble theme from Chopin's Prelude No. 20 and works out such a maelstrom of variations that, long before the end of the piece, one completely forgets the original. On the whole, it is a fine work which contains some of the most haunting pages in all of Rachmaninoff's solo piano works. Bolet's rendition, as it might be expected, is less powerful than Lugansky's but every bit as musical, if not more. Elegance and virtuosity, or poise and drama for that matter, may look like mutually exclusive qualities, at least in piano playing, but they seem to co-exist quite happily in Bolet.

The selection of preludes is a very strange one: Op. 3 No. 2, Op. 23 Nos. 5 and 10, Op. 32 Nos. 7 and 12, though not in that order. It is not for nothing that the accent is on lyrical pieces, for in these Bolet truly excels, even though in some of them he has the intimidating competition of Horowitz and even Rachmaninoff himself. My major disappointment, which chiefly downgrades this disc to four stars, is the interpretations of the famous C sharp minor and G minor preludes. The former is played in a rather faster tempo than is customary today, more in the manner of Rachmaninoff himself actually. It is a fine performance in its own right, but it does not in the least erase memories of Ashkenazy's majestic recording, or of Rachmaninoff's vastly different but equally mind-blowing one. Bolet's clarity and golden tone are well present here, as always, but the climax somewhat lacks its essential grandeur.

But the most baffling affair on this disc is the G minor prelude, Op. 23 No. 5. I guarantee you have never heard it played like that; alas, I am not sure the music benefits from Bolet's approach. To begin with, this is most probably the slowest G minor prelude on record (some four and a half minutes!), the march-rhythm is transformed into a dance-one, and the climaxes in the outer parts are very weirdly done indeed: the main theme is brought very much forward, played in the same regally slow manner, while the accompanying chords are vastly subdued. A very bizarre interpretation, to say the least, which has nothing to do either with Horowitz or with Lugansky, both of whom I certainly prefer. In a way, I find Bolet's rendition fascinating – it takes a lot to make something unique out of so hackneyed a piece – but I am only too well aware that many people may well, and rightly, find it unacceptable. One last point, though: the middle section is miraculously played. Here Bolet is indeed quite on par with any previous recording, if not superior to them all. The inner voices are brought with rare subtlety and the main theme sounds more ethereal than ever before, played with uncanny combination of quietness and clarity.

The Melodie from Op. 3 is a charming piece, beautifully executed except for the somewhat rushed bass chords in the middle of the piece. The two Kreisler transcriptions (or paraphrases?) are slower and more contemplative than Bolet's rather dashing early recordings (RCA, 1972, available 
here). If these late recordings are not especially dazzling, they certainly allow one to better appreciate the subtle fun that Rachmaninoff had at Kreisler's expense.

It is only fair to add that Bolet's weird ideas of program and his sometimes questionable interpretations are not in the least helped by DECCA's nearly dismal digital sound. The British company consistently gave Bolet an inferior sound quality during the 1980s, when he made almost all of his late recordings, but this disc is one of the lowest points. The balance is fairly fine, but the bass is often abominably flat and the dynamic range, to say nothing of the beauty of tone, is surely unworthy of the Bechstein concert grand used in these recordings. Compare this flat and shallow sound with the sumptuous one provided for Ashkenazy in the mid-1970s and the difference might well shock you; I am not sure Ashkenazy played on Bechstein but he definitely was much better recorded in terms of sonority and depth than Bolet more than a decade later. For recordings made in 1986 (the Variations) and 1987 (the rest), DECCA really ought to have done a great deal better job.

All in all, a fascinating disc with several disappointments which are neither negligible nor fatal. Even though Bolet was 71-72 years old at the time of recording, his technical prowess seems only a little less formidable than in his earlier years. It is his vision and taste which are occasionally, but highly, questionable, together with DECCA's consistently (except, to some extent, for the Variations) miserable sonics, that detract from the value of this disc. Also, I really wish Bolet had changed his program. I do like the Chopin Variations and the Kreisler pieces, but I would gladly exchange them for more preludes, most of the etudes and some other pieces from Op. 3, especially the achingly beautiful Elegie (Op. 3 No. 1) in which Bolet would certainly have created a truly unforgettable interpretation of a dismally neglected piece.

P. S. The disc is of course out of print, and it will probably remain so, but all of it can be found in the recently issued 
box-set dedicated to Bolet's non-Liszt recordings.

Review: Schubert-Liszt - 12 Songs - Jorge Bolet - DECCA, 1981

Jorge Bolet's finest late recording, hands down

Just like the fact that Liszt did not transcribe more of Schubert's lovely songs is a big loss for the piano literature, so is the fact that in November 1981 Jorge Bolet recorded only 12 of those Liszt did transcribe. All of them, coupled with a fine rendition of the badly neglected orchestration of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasie by Liszt (recorded in 1986 with the LPO and Solti), can be found as Disc 2 in the DECCA box-set with Bolet's complete late Liszt recordings. The only small bonus of the original and long out of print edition are Bryce Morrison's short but eloquent liner notes.

This is just a guess, but I think Jorge Bolet must have known Schubert's originals intimately. It is generally to Liszt's credit that he transferred the vocal lines to the piano with utmost fidelity, but I have yet to hear another pianist who brings out these heavenly melodies better than Bolet does. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau himself might have been proud to match him in this respect, although even he would probably have had some difficulties, such as shortage of breath, had he tried to sing Erlkönig in so slow a tempo. This is the only piece here which does benefit from some pathos, even histrionics, and this is why it is the only one where Bolet might have been, if not surpassed, at least equalled by some more robust interpretations. That said, his characterization, like Schubert's, is superb throughout: from the boy's growing terror to the father's concern mingled with exasperation to the Erl-King's deceptive playfulness that easily turns into violence. Without the slightest exaggeration, Jorge Bolet conveys the terrifying drama of Schubert's music and Goethe's text – certainly one of the finest examples of symbiosis between words and music – with astonishing vividness.

Tracks listing and recording details.
Pretty much the same is the case with the other more or less extrovert songs in this collection. In Die Forelle and Auf dem Wasser zu Singen, elaborate Lisztian paraphrases rather than straightforward transcriptions yet faithful to Schubert's spirit, I don't think anybody has ever even approached Bolet's perfectly fascinating renditions. As usual, he takes his time to point out many charming poetic nuances which are completely lost when brilliant pianists, but immature artists, try to impress you with how fast they can play. Bolet never does: his virtuosity is of the genuinely Romantic type which puts expression and feeling far above speed and loudness. The extraordinarily beautiful singing lines are never distorted or rushed, yet the understated but poignant drama of Die Forelle is there, and the climax of Auf dem Wasser zu Singen is built with unsurpassable subtlety and insight.

Likewise, Horch, Horch, die Lerch, Das Wandern, Die Post and Wohin? are playful, charming and gay without sounding like dull technical exercises. If you know the originals of these songs, you can almost hear voices singing while listening to all those exquisite melodies. It does sound weird – voices in piano pieces, indeed! – but the combination of Liszt and Bolet might just as well convince you that there is not much to choose between the piano and the human voice – or between a great pianist and a great singer, to be exact. Nor is the amazing poetic scope of Schubert's originals neglected by either Liszt or Bolet. Die Post, one of the songs from the famous cycle Winterreise, is a perfect example for a miniature tone poem full of a lover's exultation and sadness. As regards the latter, note Bolet's exquisite and poignant handling of the quiet passages, the first one for instance:

Die Post bringt keinen Brief für dich.
Was drängst du denn so wunderlich,
Mein Herz?

It is no accident that nearly half of the songs in this program – five pieces altogether – are among Schubert's most tranquil and serene creations. Even though Der Lindenbaum contains a powerful storm and Aufenthalt has some highly dramatic parts, these are sublimely lyrical works full of wistful grace and melancholy. And so are Lob der Tränen, Der Müller und der Bach and Lebe Wohl! (the last one of these we now know was composed by some obscure fellow and then misattributed to Schubert, but it is a beautiful song nonetheless for that). Liszt, the proverbial flamboyant virtuoso, has retained the character of the original songs to the last detail and Bolet, also often mistakenly regarded as a mere virtuoso in his youth, has captured the character of these poetic gems to perfection. Note, for instance, the superb command of the very difficult melodic lines of Der Lindenbaum or Aufenthalt, to say nothing of the fierce storm in the former or the haunting end of the latter. Can you hear the quietly sung words?

Brausender Wald,
Mein Aufenthalt.

I am especially delighted to report that DECCA's sound, for once in Bolet's late recordings, is rather excellent, with no jarring high notes that pierce your ears and no flat bass that makes you wince. The balance is excellent and the piano tone has unusual warmth compared to the glassy artificiality that is almost always the case with DECCA's piano recordings, especially the digital ones of Jorge Bolet. But here, for once, one might get at least a vague idea of Bolet's golden sound and sumptuous sonority that have acquired a legendary status on his recitals, to say nothing of the awesome power of his playing when he is so inclined: Bolet's left hand in Erlkönig might just blow your socks off. Incidentally, this is one of the very few late recordings which he made on his favourite Baldwin piano. Bolet was a lifelong fan of Baldwin, but he also regarded highly Bechstein which he indeed used for most of his recordings for DECCA, including all Liszt ones except the Schubert's songs.

One can only fantasize what wonders Bolet might have achieved with the famous Ständchen (the one on the Rellstab's text, not the one on the German translation of Shakespeare which is actually included here: Horch, Horch, die Lerch), the sad Gute Nacht, the haunting Der Wanderer (on von Lübeck's text), the charming Liebesbotschaft, the desolate Der Leiermann, the poignant Du bist die Ruh, the grand paraphrase of Ave Maria and many, many more. Alas, it was not to be. We should be grateful for what Jorge Bolet did record of Schubert's songs, and this disc is just about all of it; there are early recordings (1969) of Die Forelle or Horch, Horch, die Lerch for Ensayo which are, of course, more dashing than the late ones, but certainly not more compelling.

At any rate, this recording for DECCA of these 12 masterpieces remains an outstanding example what can be accomplished when no fewer than three geniuses combine forces: Franz Schubert, Franz Liszt and Jorge Bolet. I suggest you try the result.

Review: Liszt - Piano Works, vol. 1 - Jorge Bolet - DECCA, 1982

The beginning of a legendary series

Well, this is not quite true. Even though it bears ''Vol. 1'' in its title, this was actually Bolet's third Liszt recording for DECCA, after the five Concert Etudes and the Don Juan Fantasy in 1978 and 12 of Schubert's songs transcriptions in 1981.

Yet it was with this particular recording, made in London's Kingsway Hall in February 1982, that Bolet's now celebrated late series of Liszt recordings for DECCA really did begin. For a little more than three years – until March 1985 – Jorge Bolet recorded seven discs for the famous British company, including the Sonata in B minor, Venezia e Napoli, the first two books of Annees de Pelerinage, the Transcendental Studies, and more. Although Bolet was 67-70 years old at the time, he had lost but a little of the dazzling virtuosity of his youth
. He had also gained a greater insight into the Liszt canon. It is this insight that makes these late recordings so special, if not necessarily to everybody's taste. Fortunately, they are now available as a handsome and absurdly cheap box-set from DECCA which includes the above-mentioned seven discs, with their programs preserved as they were originally issued, together with the Schubert-Liszt songs coupled with a fine rendition of the vastly underrated orchestration of the Wanderer Fantasie (with LPO and Solti) plus the Concert Etudes, the Don Juan Fantasy and a complete recording of the Consolations (6 pieces, recorded in March 1985).

Disc 1 in this priceless box set is the disc that is being reviewed here in its original edition. It has a different cover (with a traditional portrait of Liszt) and fine liner notes by Bryce Morrison, but the sound is exactly the same. The program consists of six pieces carefully selected as to illustrate Liszt's unique versatility. Half of the compositions are entirely original ones (Mephisto Waltz No. 1, Funerailles and no. 3 from the set called Liebesträume), whereas the rest represents Liszt's unmatched ability to take music of others and make it completely his own, be these others unknown Hungarian composers (Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12), the legendary violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini (La Campanella) or the great Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi (Rigoletto Paraphrase). The fashion to degrade Liszt because of his passion for arranging others' music has long since passed. As for the passion of some people to degrade Bolet's ''lack of brilliance'', I would say only this: it's easy to find more virtuoso performances of these pieces; but to find more individual renditions which do not violate the music – that is another matter.

Tracks listing and recording details.
The key word to Jorge Bolet's interpretations – especially but not only in his late years – is restraint. What does that mean? It simply means that he refuses to rape Liszt's music by making something fast and loud out of it. Instead, Bolet bets on sumptuous sound with orchestral sonority (produced on Bechstein, as usual in his late recordings) and beautifully executed melodic lines of operatic opulence. No rush, no banging, no distortion. Oddly enough, there is a great of deal drama and passion where necessary, only they lack the violent histrionics usually – and wrongly! – regarded as essential for playing Liszt.

Many people, including some real piano lovers, are simple-minded enough to equate speed with virtuosity. They are very wide of the mark indeed; the two things have nothing in common. Speed is what every diligent piano student with a minor amount of talent achieves after several years of toil. Virtuosity is transcending fearsome technical difficulties in order to bring out everything a great piece of music has to offer – without ruining it. Jorge Bolet was a genuine virtuoso with colossal technique that never was used for its own sake. A rare phenomenon indeed, today more than ever before.

Now let's look more carefully at the contents of this CD and Bolet's interpretations.

Being some five minutes long, his La Campanella is surely one of the slowest ever recorded – which for many means also the worst. But this is a very primitive point of view. Just like the notion that La Campanella is nothing but a glittering encore piece to show off your finger dexterity. As a matter of fact, the third of the so-called, informally, Paganini Etudes is a stunning re-working of a theme by Paganini (from the finale of his Second Violin Concerto) which is so ingenious that it virtually amounts to an original composition. In the hands of Bolet it is indeed a miniature tone poem of exquisite playfulness which subtly builds to a mighty climax; note his superb command of the melodic line at that point. Have you ever noticed how beautiful it is? I hadn't – until I heard Bolet.

Pretty much the same is the case with the justly famous Concert Paraphrase from Rigoletto. The music is of course Verdi's, the beautiful theme from the amazing quartet in the last act of his opera. But the treatment is so entirely Lisztian that it is actually a fully original composition. Bolet's tempo is not the slowest on record, but it is the perfect one. Some pianists – let me not mention names for piano fans are sensitive creatures – slow down the piece abominably, in some misguided search of profoundness, others toss it off as if they were chasing a plane. Bolet, as always, is in a class of his own. He plays with extraordinary sonority and very deft fingers, yet never are the charming left-hand transformations of the main theme lost in the scintillating cascades of the right hand. The far from negligible amounts of wistfulness and poignancy contained in this extraordinary piece aren't lost either. The finale is on the grand scale yet without an ounce of exaggeration. This is what I call virtuosity.

The Twelfth Hungarian Rhapsody is one of the longest and most complex among Liszt's 19 pieces with that title. It is a dazzling kaleidoscope of lyrical and dramatic episodes, in both of which Bolet's approach works remarkably well. It is a pity that he never recorded another of the Hungarian Rhapsodies for solo piano, but he did record the Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Themes, an arrangement of the 14th rhapsody for piano and orchestra. Both works display the same inimitably Lisztian blend of impressive virtuosity weaved into richly melodious material. Bolet never misses a single detail when it comes to bringing all of the beauty of these pieces. Nor does he overdo the bravura passages.

Funerailles is my only slight disappointment on this disc. For once, Bolet goes a little too far with his restraint and the terrifying left-hand octaves and the following climax lack the tragic grandeur of the best versions on disc. Then again, Horowitz's mind-blowing account recorded in 1950 for RCA is just about impossible to be surpassed anyway. That said, Bolet makes the middle section singing like nobody else, and his subtle and suggestive introduction (which is supposed to represent death bells) is a fine alternative to Horowitz's tremendous clangour.

Mephisto Waltz No. 1 is yet another mega-popular piece of Liszt which is often misunderstood as too explicitly programmatic by scholars or mutilated with lightning speed by fine pianists but would-be artists. Whatever the inspiration by Lenau's Faust or whatever nightingale songs and violin tuning Liszt might have thought worth his while to describe in music, the piece must stand or fall as music alone. It is unbelievable how much depth Mephisto Waltz No. 1 does gain when played at normal speed and by a man who is not just a great pianist but a great artist as well. Without any cheap effects and playing to the gallery, Bolet creates here a performance of amazing colour and variety, fully worthy of the equally effective, though far less popular, orchestral variant of the piece. The middle part here is particularly miraculous, conveying sensuality as strongly as it is possible to be conveyed by music. The outer sections do not lack virtuosity at all (but they do lack rushing and banging), and the finale is pretty powerful; at the same time, there are numerous compelling details that come forward with rare vividness, for in other hands they are usually lost in meretricious showing-off.

Finally, there is the ultra-hyper-mega-giga-famous third piece from the set Liebesträume (which is not called "Liebestraum" as constantly misspelled). Well, quite simply, Jorge Bolet owns this lovely nocturne. For Ensayo, RCA and DECCA he has made four recordings of it between 1969 and 1982: the worst of these is light years ahead from anything else I have ever heard. Though incomparable in the most dashing pieces, Bolet's forte always has been the more lyrical section of the piano literature. If there is another performance of Liszt's most famous piece that rivals Bolet's in terms of singing line (for the piece exists as a song as well, a typical duality for Liszt), subtle tempo fluctuations and marvellously impassioned climax, let me know about it. Unlike some young mediocrities who slow down until they reach the bottom of the most saccharine sentimentality imaginable, Bolet is not in the least afraid of taking faster tempo than usual, yet without doing any harm to the music whatsoever. Quite to the contrary: the piece is transformed into a most beautiful operatic aria full of ''love dreams''.

If this disc has any serious drawback, this is DECCA's nearly dismal sound – almost always the case with Bolet's late recordings, alas. The high notes are almost always unnecessarily prominent while the bass is as flat as a polished marble surface. Too bad that Bolet's unmistakable tonal palette and great sonority should be marred by incompetent recording engineers. The clarity is of course admirable, but any traces of depth or warmth have been completely lost. I am sure they were there at the time of recording.

I would never claim that I don't listen to other performances of these pieces. Of course I do; that's what makes music truly great: the infinite scope for interpretation it gives. But these renditions of Jorge Bolet have always been, and no doubt will continue to be, pretty high on my list, even in the case of Funerailles where he is certainly not my first choice. Moreover, at least four of the rest five recordings on this disc are the ones I most often come back to.

P. S. Interestingly enough, the priceless Liszt recital released not so long ago by RCA contains no less than half of the pieces on this disc recorded by Bolet exactly a decade before their analogues for DECCA. All earlier versions are faster and more vigorously played, none of them significantly enough to have any doubt about the identity of the artist. Even ten years younger and very much in his prime, Bolet's unmistakable artistry was fully formed and it hardly deteriorated during his late years for DECCA, not in the beginning of the 1980s at any rate. So much for the notorious ''change'' in Bolet's old age that's supposed to have made his playing more ''deliberate'', ''stiff'', ''stodgy'', etc., etc.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Review: GREAT PIANISTS OF THE 20th CENTURY, Vols. 10 and 11: Jorge Bolet

Vol. 10: Sheer pianistic magic!

It seems to me that the legendary status of Bolet's justly famous Carnegie Hall recital in 1974 has led to some neglect of the pieces that occupy the rest of the second disc in the priceless tenth volume of The Great Pianists of the 20th Century series.

Besides the rest of the Carnegie Hall recital, there are ten pieces more on the second disc. The most remarkable thing is that nine of them are Rachmaninoff's transcriptions of music ranging from Bach to Bizet, recorded by Bolet in the RCA studios in 1973. This is a most remarkable LP for it reminds us that Rachmaninoff really was The Last Romantic, very much in the tradition of Liszt himself, if necessarily on a smaller scale. Just like his famous Hungarian predecessor, Rachmaninoff was a great composer, stupendous pianist, fine conductor and tireless arranger of music by others in which he showed taste of rare catholicity.

Tracks listing and recording details.
Jorge Bolet often said that his idol among the great pianists from the first half of the 20th century was indeed Rachmaninoff and it was his grand style on the keyboard that he tried to emulate (not to be mistaken with ''imitate''). And it shows. As far as orchestral sonority without banging and freedom of interpretation without any ostentation are concerned, Bolet's fabulous renditions of Liebesleid and Liebesfreud strongly remind one of Rachmaninoff's own (and great) recordings of these marvellous works. I can barely stand listening to Kreisler's appallingly sentimental originals, but Rachmaninoff's transcriptions are a different matter altogether; if nothing else, they eloquently demonstrate his almost rakish sense of humour. (By the way, during his late DECCA years Bolet re-recorded both pieces some 14 years after these RCA sessions; the late versions are admittedly more restrained and introverted, but they make an interesting comparison with the early ones.)

Jorge Bolet
Fascinatingly enough, Rachmaninoff left us amazing recordings of all these transcriptions, yet Bolet's somewhat more refined and aristocratic approach holds well on its own. His renditions of the notoriously difficult scherzo from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream or the ebullient Hopak from Mussorgsky opera Sorochinsky Fair are not particularly dashing, but they are wonderfully musical. The same goes for the Polka de V. R. – which is listed here, and usually, as a Rachmaninoff's composition but it is in fact a transcription of Franz Behr's Lachtäubchen polka – where I confess I prefer Horowitz's more unbridled approach, but wouldn't want to be without Bolet's either. But the prelude from Bach's Partita, the Menuet from Bizet's L'Arlesienne, and especially Bolet's colourful rendition of the famous Flight of the Bumble-Bee and the tenderness of his Lullaby (one of Tchaikovsky's most beautiful songs) are every bit as good, if not better, than what Rachmaninoff himself achieved. And the sound is conspicuously better, though the RCA engineers might have done a better job.

The last piece on the disc is Liszt's Reminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor, more like a paraphrase than a transcription, and akin to, if less brilliant than, the better known Rigoletto Paraphrase. The fellows from Philips, inexplicably, state in the booklet ''rec. date unknown'', even though this is obviously the same recording that Bolet made for Ensayo in 1969; it is now even available separately as part of the great LP with transcriptions and paraphrases which Bolet recorded at the time for this rather obscure label. Be that as it may, both Bolet's scintillating performance and Liszt's ingenious arrangement are well worth repetitive listening. They almost convince me that Lucia is great music.

Liner notes by Bryce Morrison.
 Now few words about the ''Banga-banga-banga-banga'' stuff. (Yes, it's never too late to make oneself ridiculous.) To begin with, Bolet's program for the recital is pretty daunting, if not a little eccentric by modern standards: Chopin's 24 preludes surrounded by no fewer than five transcriptions/paraphrases. Yet he plays all that (and two encores) with inimitable grandeur, incredible power and wonderfully controlled Romantic passion. The Bach-Busoni's Chaconne does not erase memories from the young Michelangelli's (1949) outstanding performance, especially that magnificent thunder in the bass right before the end, but Bolet's entirely different interpretation is not to be missed, either. Nor is his subtle rendition of Chopin's etudes, for that matter. It is charmingly different than Bolet's late version for DECCA (1987) but one still can't mistake those gorgeous additional bass notes in the last prelude.

Liner notes by Bryce Morrison.
I have never heard the originals of the two Strauss waltzes, but Tausig's transcriptions – and Bolet's uncanny ease in executing them – make me wanting to rectify this. I understand Schulz-Evler's Arabesques are notoriously difficult and seldom encountered in recital. Perhaps there is another reason for that, namely that the piece is a little more than meretricious junk which reduces Strauss' original (a wonderfully evocative tone poem) to a bag of worthless pianistic tricks; Liszt himself, so often accused of that, never ruined so fine a music in so cheap a manner. It takes Bolet's dedication to take this piece seriously indeed. The same is true for the two encores, particularly the so-called Staccato Etude by Anton Rubinstein who apparently was as great a pianist as he was a mediocre composer. La jongleuse by Moszkowsky, the king of encore pieces, fares a great deal better. Bolet loved the piece (he re-recorded for his Encores LP, DECCA, 1985) and used to say that what gave him the greatest pleasure was the fact that every time he played it as an encore everybody in the public had a big smile on his face.

But the whole recital is completely obliterated by the last piece in the program: Wagner-Liszt's Overture to Tannhäuser. Quite simply, this is by far the finest version of this gigantic work ever committed on disc. Bolet's performance easily equals Howard and Cziffra in terms of technical prowess and completely blows them away in terms of sheer musicianship. (And please don't get me started on Moiseiwitsch's legendary rendition. It's technically amazing but musically not at all that impressive.) The only other performance that comes close is Bolet's nearly accidental studio take for RCA in 1973 and available on 
Bolet Rediscovered. But even that performance, remarkable as it is, does not have the sweeping passion and the crystalline clarity of the one recorded live in Carnegie Hall on February 25, 1974.

Especially unforgettable are the final two minutes or so. These must be some of the most taxing two minutes in the whole of piano literature, and they come after some 14 minutes or so of equally intimidating technical tour de force, to say nothing of the mammoth program prior to the last piece in this particular case. No matter. Bolet creates an astonishing whirlwind of sound which, for sheer power and beauty, has never been equalled, let alone surpassed. Nor has Bolet's impeccable musicianship which makes sense even of the most impossible passages. This performance alone is worth the full price for the disc.

CD and booklet.
The only drawback of this stupendous recital is the clangy, brittle and flat sound, rife with jarring high notes. At best, it gives a vague, but tantalizing, idea about the orchestral sonority which Bolet's playing must have had. Never mind. It is crass to complain about indifferent sound quality when we have such a unique artistry to enjoy.

The booklet is of the typical, fairly high, quality for the series. It contains the usual short biographical sketch (the same as in vol. 2), interesting if unduly purple essay by Bryce Morrison and some pretty rare, if yellowish, photos of Bolet. The CD has long since been out of print, criminally so, and is not especially cheap second-hand. However, I find it very difficult to think of another disc which is easily worth pretty much everything you may be asked for.

Vol. 11: Liszt as you have never heard him!

I appreciate Mr Pinheiro’s perceptive commentaries, but I definitely disagree with him anyway. It is true, of course, that Bolet's late recordings for DECCA are different than his early ones, and this is especially true about the B minor Sonata and Mephisto Waltz No. 1, both of which Bolet recorded twice: 1960 for Everest, 1982 for DECCA. However, two things must be pointed out: 1) the early recordings, for all their dazzling virtuosity, are by no means unmusical; and 2) the late recordings, whatever their merits, are in no way technically deficient. To say that slow tempi and careful phrasing are to detriment of Liszt's works is to misrepresent and misunderstand this great composer completely. After all, Liszt was no Godowsky. To say that Jorge Bolet deliberately restrained himself in order to go into history as a profound artist can only be described as a slander. Nobody is obliged to like Jorge Bolet's playing, but let us be more careful when we question his motives, shall we?

One last point about this notorious change in his late years. RCA's Bolet Rediscovered contains no fewer than seven pieces recorded in 1972, that is some 10 years before Bolet re-recorded them for DECCA. In 1972 he was still rather obscure and pretty much in his prime, and while the early recordings are certainly faster and more powerful, the differences are minor. Bolet's interpretations were perfectly unmistakable even at times when he could not even have dreamed of the world fame he later achieved.

CD and booklet.
For me, personally, Jorge Bolet has always been, and continues to be, a revelation. Especially as far as Liszt's music is concerned. I used to be like the Mr Pinheiro and I thought that Liszt's works necessarily need excess, devil-may-care attitude, dashing bravura, call it what you like. I no longer do, indeed I now think such claim a pure nonsense, and this excellent selection from Bolet's late Liszt recordings for DECCA eloquently tells why.

Track listings and recording details.
Track listings and recording details.
To begin with, Bolet's superb command of the most elaborate melodic lines and the rich, orchestral sonority of his playing make his renditions of lyrical pieces like Ricordanza, Harmonies du Soir, Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, nos. 3 from sets like Liebesträume (not ''Liebestraum''!) and Consolations, Au bord d'une source and the first two parts of Venezia e Napoli some of the most compelling on record. If one has any doubt that the piano, though percussive instrument, could imitate the human voice to perfection, one needn't go further than these magical renditions.

Oddly enough, Bolet's restrained and introverted approach works surprisingly well with more technically challenging works, indeed some of the most taxing pieces Liszt ever composed. One of the most beautiful things about this double disc is that it contains all of Bolet's late recordings of Liszt's operatic paraphrases. They are only three, unfortunately. The Rigoletto Paraphrase (1982) is a downright amazing execution, with daring bravura and dexterous fingers, yet with sensitive articulation of the wistful main them and its many disguises. I admit that sometimes I hanker for a more unbridled performance of the Don Juan Fantasy than Bolet's; in such cases I usually turn to Earl Wild's captivating brio and élan, or to Louis Kentner's idiosyncratic but devoid of self-consciousness approach. But I certainly wouldn't want to be without Bolet's version either, for it reminds me as no other performance that ''La ci darem la mano'' from Mozart's Don Giovanni is a seduction duet and that Don Juan himself needn't chase a train in order to have fun at his party. Incidentally, the Don Juan Fantasy was one of the first recordings that Bolet made for DECCA (1978).

The recording of the Norma Fantasy was made full 10 years later (1988) and live (in Carolyn Blount Theatre, Montgomery, USA). It is absolutely unbelievable that Bolet was nearly 74 years old at the time and apparently seriously ill. For this is by far the finest rendition of the Norma Fantasy I have ever heard; Howard and Brendel (not to mention semi-bangers like Hamelin), taken together, do not even come close, musicianship-wise. Bolet's recording lacks neither drama nor virtuosity: it just doesn't make a cheap show out of them. I don't think the magnificent middle part of Norma has ever been played more beautifully and with greater sensitivity to its operatic origins, nor have I heard the outer parts played more slowly yet more majestically (both, as a matter of fact, are usually ridiculously rushed by other pianists). This live recording of the Norma Fantasy alone is worth the price of both discs, no matter how inflated it may be.

Similarly to the Don Juan Fantasy, I do enjoy more virtuoso performances of Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (such as Bolet's early recording or those of Wild
or Howard) or the Tarantella from Venezia and Napoli (such as Ciccolini's fiery rendition for EMI). But I get tired of power and speed rather more easily than of Bolet's delicious handling of the lyrical middle sections and his total lack of ostentation in the outer parts. Bolet's La Campanella, one of the slowest on record, I wouldn't exchange for anybody else's. It is the best proof that the piece is a genuine masterpiece, not cheap encore stuff as treated by pretty much everybody. The same holds for Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, a piece fabulously rich in haunting melodies, all of them executed with unforgettable vividness and entirely without the slightest distortion.

Liner notes by Joseph Manhart.
Liner notes by Joseph Manhart.
If this selection has any drawback, this is Funerailles where, for once, Bolet holds up a little too much, especially at the grand climax of the piece; Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude or the other pieces from the set of three Liebesträume or the Second Ballade should have been chosen instead. And of course there is DECCA's digital sound, consistently subpar, sometimes abominably so (as in the case of the Mephisto Waltz No. 1 or Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12), sometimes slightly so (as in Ricordanza or Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, for instance). But any sonic imperfections these recordings may have are minor price to pay for something as unique and rare as Bolet's artistry.

Rare photos from the booklet.
The bottom line is that Jorge Bolet, of course, is not everybody's cup of tea. Both his gorgeous sound and his unusual concept for pretty much everything he played are in class of their own. There is nothing like Bolet in the whole Lisztian discography, that's for sure. Like any great artist, he generates wildly differing reactions and opinions. Bolet's playing, especially his late recordings, either grips one and becomes a constant part of his personality, or it all but revolts him and he finds his interpretations unlistenable; in the latter case one of course ignores him, whereas in the former he grows on you with every further listening. There is no possible way to predict what one's reactions to such phenomenon would be. For my part, I have quite a lot of affection for Horowitz's explosive passion, Ciccolini's fascinating lack of restraint, Wild's remarkable ease of execution, Arrau's intensely personal approach or Leslie Howard's somewhat rigid scholarship – none of them even remotely similar to Bolet. Yet it is Jorge Bolet's introversion and restraint (in the best possible sense of these words) that I most often come back to. Strange, but true.

P. S. I should like to add a few words about the essay by one Josef Manhart in the booklet. Leaving aside dull writing style and more or less complete lack of insight into Bolet's artistry, it also contains some frankly preposterous passages, such as this one:

Although for Jorge Bolet a relaxed style of playing was by no means incompatible with a rigorous intellectual approach, it must be admitted that he was more concerned, on occasion, with technical display than with Liszt's poetical thought, and that he sometimes lost sight of the latter entirely, indulging in virtuosity for its own sake.

You don't say, Josef! This is such a tremendous nonsense that I wonder how it was allowed to be published at all. I wish Herr Manhart had given some examples. For I have yet to hear a single recording of Bolet, nay a single minute of his playing, especially in Liszt, in which he indulges in ''virtuosity for its own sake''. And this includes his early recordings of the Sonata, Mephisto Waltz No. 1, the First Concerto and the Hungarian Fantasy for Everest made in 1960-61: dashing as they are, there is not a single passage that is played to detriment of the music. Such nonsense written by pseudo-critics has led to the most widespread and pernicious misconception about Bolet's artistry, namely that it was somewhat missing in his early years. Indeed, this ridiculous distortion of the truth may well have been responsible, at least partly, for the neglect Jorge Bolet suffered for many, many, far too many years.