Thursday, 30 May 2013

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 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.

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