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, Mélodie Op. 3 No. 3 and, by way of encores, Rachmaninoff's transcriptions of Kreisler's Liebesleid and Liebesfreud.
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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, recently by Lugansky (2004) for instance, and taken seriously even more seldom. The work does contain a few pages of pastiche, but it is nevertheless a fine testimony to 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, one completely forgets the original. On the whole, it is a fine work with some truly haunting pages; Bryce Morrison, in his liner notes, goes as far as calling the 21st variation ''as haunting and memorable as anything else in Rachmaninov.'' 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 accidental that most of them are lyrical pieces, for in them Bolet truly excels despite the intimidating competition of Horowitz and even Rachmaninoff himself. My major disappointment, which chiefly downgrades this disc from five 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 presented here, as always, but the climax somewhat lacks its essential grandeur.
But the most baffling affair 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 is transformed into a dance, and the climaxes 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 with either Horowitz or 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, 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 Mélodie from Op. 3 is a charming piece, beautifully played except for the somewhat rushed bass chords in the middle. I wish Bolet had chosen other pieces from this opus, the Serenade (Op. 3 No. 5) with Spanish flavour, the poignant Élégie (Op. 3 No. 1) or the mocking and sinister Polichinelle (Op. 3 No. 4), but it was not to be. The two Kreisler transcriptions (or paraphrases?) are slower and more contemplative than Bolet's rather dashing early recordings (RCA, 1973, available here). But let's not make too much of that, shall we? If these late recordings are not especially dazzling, they show no sign of either technical or musical incapacity. Certainly, they allow one to appreciate just as well, perhaps better, 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 nearly dismal digital sound. DECCA consistently gave Bolet inferior sonics 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. 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 hardly 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, in the Variations) miserable sonics, that detract from the value of this album. 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 or, as I have said above, some other pieces from Op. 3.
P. S. The disc is of course out of print, and it will probably remain so, but almost all of it (without three of the preludes, including the G minor one) can be found on the relatively recent, haphazardly selected, not very cheap and stupidly tiled DECCA box set dedicated to Jorge Bolet, The Romantic Virtuoso (2010).