Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Review: Jorge Bolet - The Romantic Virtuoso - DECCA, 4 CD

Five stars for Jorge + One star for DECCA = Five stars overall

One doesn't know what to do about such release: to thank DECCA, or to curse them.

To begin with, the selection of these four CDs is very bizarre indeed. But I am ready to forgive this since the discs are at least very well filled: the shortest one is 79 minutes long. It is has often been said – with a good reason, but also with a good deal of exaggeration – that Jorge Bolet's late recordings for DECCA do not represent him at his best because, firstly, he was always greatly stimulated by a live audience but intimated by the studio, and secondly, he was old and ill through much of the 1980s. As a matter of fact, Bolet's artistry always was quite unique enough as to shine brightly even when he was ''intimidated''; as for technical shortcomings, I don't hear any during Jorge's recordings from the first half of the 1980s and only very few in those from the second half – which don't matter at all since they are always transformed into artistic advantages.

So I take issue with the opinion that Jorge's late recordings for DECCA – made between 1977 and 1989, that is when he was 63 and 75 years old, respectively; he died in 1990 – do not represent him at his best. But I definitely claim that this box-set is a very poor representation of Jorge's late recording legacy. In his otherwise fine liner notes, Jeremy Siepman says that Bolet's discography for DECCA is ''neatly encapsulated here''. This is quite simply not true.

To clearly show the inadequacy of the selection on these four CDs, it might be useful to give here a semi-impromptu discography of Jorge's recordings for DECCA. In chronological order and – with but a few exceptions – disc by disc, it looks something like that:

1977_Godowsky-Chopin: Waltzes, Etudes (selection)
1978_Liszt: Concert etudes (complete) + Don Juan Fantasy
1980_Brahms: Variations on Handel. Reger: Variations on Teleman
1981_Schubert-Liszt: 12 song transcriptions
1982_Liszt: Liebesträume (No. 3 only), Mephisto Waltz No.1, Funerailles, La Campanella, Rigoletto Paraphrase
1982_Liszt: Liebesträume (complete), Valse Impromptu, Sonata in B minor, Grand Galop Chromatique
1982_Liszt: Annees de Pelerinage: 2. Italie (complete)
1982_Rachmaninoff: Concerto No. 3 (London Symphony, Fischer)
1983_Liszt: Annees de Pelerinage: 1. Suisse (complete)
1983_Liszt: Venezia e Napoli (complete), Le jeux d'eau a la Villa d'Este, Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude, Ballade No. 2
1984_Liszt: Totentanz, Malediction, Hungarian Fantasia (London Symphony, Fischer)
1985_Liszt: Transcendetal Etudes (complete), Consolations (complete)
1985_Chopin: two nocturnes, two waltzes, three etudes + various encore pieces by Debussy, Mendelssohn, Moszkowski, Schlözer, Albeniz, Bizet, R. Strauss, Schubert, Godowsky
1985_Schumann, Grieg: Piano concerti
1986_Schumann: Fantasia + Carnaval
1986_Chopin: Four ballades, Fantasia, Barcarolle
1986_Franck: Symphonic variations (Concertgebouw, Chailly)
1986/87_Rachmaninoff: Chopin variations + Liebesleid, Liebesfreud, Melodie, five preludes
1987_Rachmaninoff: Concerto No. 2 + Tchaikovsky: Concerto No. 1 (Montreal Symphony, Dutoit)
1987_Chopin: Preludes (complete) + Four nocturnes
1988_Franck: Prelude, Choral et Fugue + Prelude, aria et final
1988_Mendelssohn: Prelude and Fugue; Franck: Prelude, Choral et Fugue; Liszt: Norma Fantasy (Live in Carolyn Blount Theater, Montgomery, USA; published posthumously)
1988_Debussy: 16 preludes
1989_Schubert: Sonatas D. 784 and D. 959
1989_Chopin: Concerti Nos. 1 & 2 (Montreal Symphony, Dutoit)

Altogether, these recordings make for about 20 discs. Except for all works of Liszt listed above, which are available as a handsome and embarrassingly cheap nine-discs 
box-set, all other recordings are long since out of print. Most of them, however, can be found second-hand at very reasonable prices, or can be experienced thanks to some wonderful budget price labels (Newton Classics, Eloquence) who have taken the trouble, gratefully acknowledged, to re-issue them. The only exception is Jorge's first recording for DECCA – Godowsky's shameful tampering with Chopin – which, as far as I know, is all but unobtainable except at ludicrous prices. Let's now look closer into those four discs and see, if it's not already obvious, why they fail completely to give any fair idea of Jorge Bolet's artistry.

CD 1: All Rachmaninoff. Am I the only one who thinks that the massive Chopin Variations and the charmingly light Liebesfreud are strange fillers for Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto? Be that as it may, the choice of the man is excellent. Jorge loved Rachmaninoff as a composer and simply adored him as a pianist; more than once did he say that, of all great pianists he heard in his youth, the one he revered and tried to emulate (not to be confused with ''imitate''!) most was Rachmaninoff.

Bolet's late recording of Rach's Third has often been unfavourably compared with his incandescent live performance from 1969 with the Indiana University Symphony Orchestra (available in decent, albeit mono, sound from Palexa together with some great Liszt bonuses – in stereo). Certainly, the young Bolet live is quite a bit wilder than the aged Bolet in studio, but his late recording still remains a fine example how to play an extremely difficult work in a most musical manner. The same is pretty much true for the Chopin Variations, a rather badly neglected masterpiece.

DECCA might have thought of giving us two discs with Rachmaninoff which to include also Jorge's excellent Second Concerto with Dutoit and the rest of his wonderful solo LP with Rachmaninoff (few of these pieces are included on CD 4).

CD 2: All Liszt. Here the selection is even more bizarre: four works for piano and orchestra plus two short solo piano works, only two of which are Liszt's original compositions (though at least two of the other four transform music of others so ingeniously that they almost amount to original compositions too). All recordings are among Jorge's best. The
trademark combination of virtuosity and restraint in Totentanz and the Hungarian Fantasy is admirable, to say the least, and his renditions of the lovely Auf dem Wasser zu Singen and the Rigoletto Paraphrase are perfect examples of what might be called the ''Bolet Sound'': big, lush, sonorous, always beautiful, never degenerating into mere banging.

All the same, since all of its contents can be found in the aforementioned box-set entirely dedicated to Jorge Bolet and Liszt, this CD is completely superfluous. DECCA really should have used the space to give us more of his Chopin, Debussy, Frank and Schubert. As we shall see presently, the first two of these are all but absent and the second two are completely – and regrettably – missing.

CD 3: Chopin, Brahms, Schumann. Considering Jorge's lifelong love for Chopin and the considerable number of works by the Polish master which he recorded for DECCA, it's really a shame to have here but two pieces. What we really should have had are the four Ballades, rather than only the Second, and Bolet's marvellous Fantasy in F minor in addition to his exquisite Barcarolle, to say nothing of his lovely late recordings of the complete preludes and four of Chopin's most beautiful nocturnes (including the two of Op. 27). (Speaking of Chopin's nocturnes, has anybody ever played Op. 9 No. 2 more slowly and more beautifully than Jorge Bolet? Alas, the piece is not included here.)

As for the Brahms' work, do we need another gigantic set of variations when we have to compress 20 CDs into four? If we do, why not include the vastly neglected Reger's Telemann Variations which Jorge plays with even greater panache than he does Brahms' elaboration on Handel. Finally, Schumann's Fantasy should have been exchanged for his Carnaval, where Jorge obviously feels more at home.

CD 4: Encores by Chopin, Godowsky, Rachmaninoff, Mendelssohn, Debussy, Albeniz, Schlözer, and Liszt. This is the finest selection here, though it might have been done much better, too.

If you are a Bolet completist, this CD contains the only pieces that are really hard to obtain otherwise: four examples of Godowsky's perfectly perverse meddling with the music of a composer infinitely greater than himself. Improving Chopin waltzes and etudes, indeed! For once, the selection is very insightful. In two of the cases Chopin's originals precede Godowsky's grotesque travesties, thus allowing the listener to make a fascinating comparison between genius and mediocrity.

Most of the other pieces come from Bolet's celebrated LP with encores recorded in 1985. Many of these are pure gems, especially Mendelssohn's vivacious Rondo capriccioso (one misses here the equally delightful Jägerlied) and a charming etude by one Paul de Schlözer (Paul de who?). However, the omission Moszkowski's La Jongleuse is unforgivable. This was one of Jorge's most favourite encores. He used to say that he loved to play it because afterwards everybody in the audience had a big smile on his face; indeed, the piece is such a fun that it is hard not smile while listening to it.

The pieces by Rachmaninoff and Debussy are taken from Bolet's LPs dedicated to those composers, but they certainly fit much better the original programs than this selection of encores. Jorge's recording of 16 of Debussy's preludes has so much been hailed by pianophiles as the most perfect piano sound ever recorded, that the uniqueness of interpretation has been badly neglected. The preludes are on the slow side, certainly, (Jorge was nearly 74 when he recorded them, after all) but note the fabulous left hand in La Puerta del Vino, the poignancy of the famous La Fille aux cheveux de lin and the playfulness of Minstrels.

The disc finishes, very appropriately, with Liszt's Grand Galop Chromatique, an incredibly entertaining piece which Jorge plays in a completely inimitable manner: slowly and carefully, so that one can fully savour the fun. Most other pianists rush through the wretched piece at such a speed that they completely miss the point.

So, in the end, this box-set is not a bad introduction to the art of Jorge Bolet, but its most valuable asset remains the low price. I definitely recommend getting the nine CDs with Liszt instead; though more expensive and dedicated to only one composer, this box-set is of such great diversity that it is actually a way better introduction to one of the great masters of the keyboard from the last century. It is a fairly sure guess that if you don't like these recordings, you won't like any of Jorge's earlier ones; and if you don't like his Liszt, you will certainly not like his Chopin, Schumann or Debussy.

These four CDs, trying as they could to give an accurate idea of Jorge's artistry, should have been made as a kind of supplement to the absolutely essential Liszt recordings. So they should have contained no Liszt but a great deal more Debussy and especially Chopin, to say nothing of those fine interpretations of Schubert (Jorge's Sonata in A minor, D. 784, is amazing) and Franck (the sombre depth of his Prelude, choral et fugue is well worth hearing). Bolet's slow but powerful renditions of Tchaikovsky's First concerto or Grieg's only one are worthy of re-issue, too.

In fact, I should like to ask DECCA: how about a box-set of Bolet's complete non-Liszt DECCA recordings? It would be more expensive, yes, but it would be a great deal better tribute to artist of such calibre. Jorge deserves it. Until that happened, if ever, Bolet neophytes with few bucks to spare would do better to skip this rather disparate selection and go for the nine-disc Lisztian adventure.

PS. Apparently DECCA have listened to my wise advice and have recently (on March 27th, 2013) issued something like Bolet's complete non-Liszt recordings. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, they did only a moderately successful job. The box-set consists of nine discs and bears the hackneyed title Jorge Bolet: The Last Romantic. The good news is that this collection is a great deal more comprehensive and better selected. There is no Liszt, except for the live Norma from 1988 (as part from the complete concert which also features Mendelssohn and Franck), but the hard-to-find-at-normal-price Godowsky disc and Bolet’s solo LPs with Schumann, Schubert, Rachmaninoff as well as the one with encores are included complete (or so it seems online). The bad news is that there are many omissions. They include Brahms' and Reger's variations on baroque themes, the studio recordings of Franck's great masterpieces for piano, and all concerto recordings. Why DECCA did what they did is, again, a profound mystery to me. This box-set, which by the way is offered at a very attractive price, could have been the definitive addition to Bolet's complete Liszt recordings. Now it is not. Nevertheless, it is a much better choice than the four discs of The Romantic Virtuoso. Grab it while it's still in stock.

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