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.

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