Friday, 31 May 2013

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.


Tracks.
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.

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