Friday, 31 May 2013

Review: Liszt - Transcendental Studies - Jorge Bolet - Ensayo (1970) & DECCA (1985)

If there ever was a definitive performance, this is it!

It's an interesting topic for speculation whether I suffer from the FRS (First Recording Syndrome). Jorge Bolet's late recording for DECCA was the first complete set of Liszt's Transcendental Studies I ever heard, quite a long time ago, and it still remains by far the finest one. Even after all those years, and after a number of alternatives, some good (Arrau, Ovchinnikov, Ott, Stanev, Howard), some bad (Berman, Cziffra, Berezovsky), no one seems to be even remotely in the same league as Jorge Bolet. The only other complete recording I am ready to rank with Bolet's is his own first attempt, made as early as 1970 for the perfectly obscure label Ensayo. Yet even this stupendous performance, though more technically accomplished than the later one, falls short in terms of poetic depth.

Now I fully understand that Bolet's intensely personal approach to the keyboard is not everybody's cup of tea. Oddly enough, it isn't mine, either. Somehow, however, Bolet manages to get away with slow tempi and emotional restraint I would never forgive another pianist. Similar tempi in lesser hands, and minds, do sound sluggish, awkward, contrived, mannered, you name it. Similar poise and control often lead to sophomoric – and soporific – performances of deadly dullness. Not Jorge Bolet. Under his fingers even the slowest possible tempi make perfect sense and sound utterly convincing. I guess the secret is that he doesn't rely on sharp contrasts, but rather on subtle fluctuations, in this respect.
This is a very lame ''explanation'', one that explains nothing of the mystery of miraculous musical creation by great artists, but I'm afraid I can't think of a better one.

Bolet's tone – almost always produced on Bechstein or Baldwin, rather than on the proverbial Steinway – is another of those pianistic miracles one doesn't find in the youngsters today. It is suave, smooth, silky, velvety; in short, impossible to describe. The dynamic range and the sonority are enormous, almost orchestral, even sometimes reminding me of a mighty organ in a vast cathedral; yet never is there any banging, any virtuosity for virtuosity's sake, any foolish bravado for cheap accolades. For Bolet music always came first, and he was always capable to infuse even the most often played piece with fresh poetry that makes you re-think what you thought you knew. He never plays to the gallery. He is never dull or ordinary. He is incomparable and indescribable.

With the possible exception of Vladimir Horowitz, never have I heard another pianist who brings out more inner voices and forgotten details without ever degrading a composition to a mass of details than Jorge Bolet. Nor, with the same exception in mind, have I ever heard a more unique and instantly recognisable artist than Jorge Bolet. Strangely enough, no other two pianists can be more different than Bolet and Horowitz: listening to the same piece played by both of them is to listen to two completely different works. Even more strangely, Horowitz played but a few of the Transcendental Studies (early in his career) and never recorded even one, while Bolet played them regularly throughout his life and recorded them complete twice: 1970 for Ensayo, as already mentioned, and 1985 for DECCA, the recording that is being reviewed here. It is not stretching a point to suggest that these marvellous works always brought out the very best in Jorge Bolet.

We need keep mind, however, that Jorge Bolet (15.XI.1914 – 16.X.1990) recorded his Transcendental Studies for DECCA when he was in his 71st year: March 1985, St. Barnabas Church, London. So the bad news, if it may be called thus, is that Bolet's tempi are even slower than usual and that occasionally – most notably in the main theme of Mazeppa and the climax of Eroica – his playing may somewhat lack power, especially in the left hand. As a matter of fact, Bolet's Transcendental Studies for DECCA, running for 74 minutes overall, are most probably the slowest ever recorded. Timings are misleading stuff, but in this particular case they are instructive:

I have never ever heard anybody stretching Wilde Jagd to 6:30, Harmonies du Soir to 10:40 and Eroica to 5:30 – let alone Mazeppa to nearly nine or the second study to almost three minutes. Yet timings are misleading, even in this particular case. Judging by them alone, one might be tempted to expect vapid and colourless renditions entirely lacking fire and drama. Far from it.

Let's take Mazeppa for example. It is generally acknowledged to be one of the most challenging works in the set and many a passionate virtuoso have tried – and succeeded – to turn it into a shallow display of pyrotechnics and a truly disgusting cacophony, Boris Berezovsky in his video concert being by far the most notable example. Quite apart from that, tons of wise words have been written about the explicit program of the study, of its highly descriptive nature, galloping horses and all. This is a farrago of nonsense. Even the eponymous symphonic poem (a much extended and transformed version of the piano piece), though more programmatic than the etude, is rather vaguely reminiscent of Hugo's poem printed by way of preface in the score which is supposed to have inspired Liszt. I have listened to Mazeppa quite a number of times, yet I have never been able to bother myself with all that programmatic junk about a nobleman tied to a wild horse, etc., etc. Charming imagery, no doubt, but it is more suitable for listeners (and pianists) with very poor imagination.

What makes Bolet's Mazeppa a unique experience is precisely the fact that it transcends completely such inanity as programs. The left hand in the main theme may be weak, but the theme itself – in the right hand – has rare and poignant nobility. Mind you, the etude doesn't in the least lack power or grandeur, either. Even at 70 Bolet was still capable of stupendous technical feats and he coaxes from his Bechstein tremendous sonority. Note now he plays the descending chords that appear several times during the piece: slowly but with extraordinary gradation in dynamics and impeccable articulation. Passages like these, a mere bravura display in others' hands, make much more sense under Bolet's fingers. I have never heard any other pianist, especially in Liszt's Transcendental Studies, with whom every note matters so much.

If Bolet is slightly handicapped technically in studies like Mazeppa or Eroica, there is more than ample compensation for that: numerous nuances that are usually completely lost amidst rushing and banging. And it would be a gross mistake to underestimate Bolet's technical prowess indeed. His Wilde Jagd, in addition to the lovely middle part, has fabulously powerful opening and simply mind-blowing finale. Nor is the slow tempo in No. 10 at expense of its tension and drama, both captured with an almost frightening intensity. The improvisatory nature of Preludio, the haunting world of the Second study, the mystical grandeur of Vision, the whimsical mischievousness of Feux Follets or the desolate bleakness of Chasse-neige are superbly conveyed by Jorge Bolet, with poetic depth as yet unsurpassed.

Many listeners, I daresay, might miss the devil-may-care virtuosity of Berman and Berezovsky, but not me. There is infinitely more in Liszt's Transcendental Studies than knuckle-breaking pyrotechnics. With enough practice, everybody can play fast and loud: music schools and conservatories are full of spectacular technicians that may well toss off the complete set between two coffees. But to infuse these overplayed yet underestimated pieces with originality not at the expense of their musicality, to reveal the hidden secrets and to convert them into tone poems: that is quite another story. Bolet's interpretations have the precious combination of inimitably unique character and a musicianship of a very high order. For my part, in these works he is without peer, let alone rival.

Apart from the aforementioned early recording for Ensayo, I have never heard anybody in any of the Transcendental Studies who even comes close to Bolet's profound mastery and understanding – his closest rival in terms of philosophical approach to the keyboard (Claudio Arrau) firmly included. But when I come to the most lyrical of the studies – Paysage, Ricordanza, Harmonies du Soir and, to some extent, Chasse-neige – Bolet is absolutely peerless. There is a recording of the young Kissin of the third of these which I used to like long time ago, but it gradually lost the battle with Bolet's spontaneous poise, if you allow the oxymoron. I have yet to hear the dreamy, other-worldly quality of the first two studies from the above list better captured by anybody else, either. Listening to Bolet's Chasse-neige makes me realise why many Lisztians consider this to be the finest piece in the set. Bolet turns this masterpiece, again, into something much more than a mere snow-storm.

In short, magnificent disc of great music played in a regal manner, but with no ostentation whatsoever, by one of the finest artists at the keyboard (as opposed to mere pianists) from the last century. In his late recordings for DECCA, particularly those from the second half of the 1980s, Jorge Bolet was always capable to turn his mild technical shortcomings into immense artistic advantages. This is precisely what he has done here, and what makes this disc my absolutely desert-island rendition of the Transcendental Studies.

The original DECCA issue is of course long since out of print, but second-hand copies in fine condition are stupendously cheap. Besides, you can find these wonderful performances as Disc 7 from Bolet's complete Liszt recordings for DECCA which is very much in print and comes at super-bargain price. One little bonus of the original edition are the concise and perceptive liner notes of Bryce Morrison.

P. S. DECCA's digital sound is fine, but it could have been done better, that is less clangy in the high register and more sonorous in the lower one. No matter. Minor quibble that does not detract from the greatness of Bolet's vision.

Bolet's Bolet, and that's that!

This is a priceless recording. Еvery Bolet buff should be grateful it is available. For this is a rare opportunity to compare Bolet in his absolute prime with his late recording legacy for DECCA which is largely, but mistakenly, thought to be stodgy stuff of little value. What finer yardstick could we have than a complete recording of Liszt's Transcendental Studies, that rare amalgam of pyrotechnics and poetry?

Let's first put both recordings into some kind of historical perspective. All repetitions are deliberate.

Jorge Bolet made the recording for Ensayo in 1970, when was but 55-56 years old and largely unknown; this was four years before his now legendary recital in Carnegie Hall which made him a star almost overnight. In the late 1970s, when he himself was in his late sixties, Bolet signed his first contract with major label (DECCA) and recorded prolifically almost until the end of his life (1990). In March 1985, aged 70, he made his second complete recording of the Studies, now available second-hand separately or as a part of the wonderful box set with Bolet's complete Liszt recordings. So there is a difference between both recordings of some 15 years, during which Bolet's technical prowess, even his artistry indeed, is supposed to have degenerated. This is tosh.

The usual and widely known notion is that Bolet's late recording of the Transcendental Studies is much too slow to be taken seriously, whereas his early one is much faster and more virtuosic. It is true, of course, that the Ensayo rendition is more powerful, but a comparison of the timings shows that, overall, it is but slightly faster than its later counterpart (in round brackets: the timing of the same piece from the DECCA recording):

1. Prelude 1:00 (1:04)
2. [Molto Vivace] 2:45 (2:56)
3. Paysage 4:40 (4:50)
4. Mazeppa 8:05 (8:55)
5. Feux follets 4:10 (4:32)
6. Vision 5:54 (6:21)
7. Eroica 5:14 (5:31)
8. Wilde Jagd 6:17 (6:30)
9. Ricordanza 10:55 (10:52)
10. [Allegro agitato molto] 5:04 (5:30)
11. Harmonies du soir 10:18 (10:42)
12. Chasse-neige 5:23 (6:07)

It will be noticed that, more often than not, the difference in the timings is negligible (nos. 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 11) or there is virtually no difference at all (nos. 1 and 9). The etudes that are conspicuously faster for Ensayo do not necessarily profit from that. The mystical atmosphere of Vision and Chasse-neige is somewhat lost here, nor is No. 10 any more compelling because it is nearly half a minute faster. The biggest and most obvious difference – both temporally and aurally – is of course Mazeppa which is nearly a minute longer and does not have the somewhat underpowered left hand that slightly mars the late recording for DECCA. Significantly, Mazeppa for Ensayo gains in terms of grandeur and drama, but it lacks the subtlety and the poetry of the later version. 

The bottom line, however, is this: apart from slightly faster tempi and more powerful left hand, the earlier recording is very similar to the later one. In virtually every study – the shortest one included! – there are a number of unique touches that put Bolet's entirely in a class of his own. I am reminded of his humorous statement that he himself couldn't sense that maturity in his playing that was supposed to mark his late years (according to the critics) but had been missing in his early ones. Small wonder he couldn't: it is imaginary.

There is no possible way to mistake Bolet's artistry, especially in the Transcendental Studies, with that of anybody else, no matter whether you will hear the early recording for Ensayo or the late one for DECCA. Personally, I do prefer the latter, for it is more insightful and poetic, and I have never much cared for a technical tour de force at the expense of the music as so often is the case with these works. Yet the sweeping power and passion of the earlier recording makes it well worth listening to. Amazingly, Bolet's legendary technique – praised highly by the cool-headed Harold Schonberg himself, no less – is never at the expense of melodic lines, nor does it ever degenerate into mere banging or rushing. His characteristic poise is as evident here as anywhere else in his discography, and it makes for a compelling combination with the awesome power of his playing. Indeed, my only quibbles, artistically, with this recording stem from the comparison with Bolet's later attempt for DECCA. On its own, the early interpretation for Ensayo is miles ahead from that of any other pianist in my listening experience.

The only real trouble with this recording is the sound. It is decent enough to be listenable, but it is more appropriate for something recorded in 1950, rather than in 1970. The balance is fine, yet the bass is often flat and the overall sonority and dynamic range are limited. These are certainly not Bolet's faults. But one should try to understand. Not only was the recording made more than 40 years ago, but it was made for a very obscure label and in, of all places, a casino in Barcelona, God (should He exist) knows on what piano and with whom as a recording engineer (there is nothing mentioned in the booklet about either of these issues). At any rate, the indifferent sound is a very small price to pay for such blend of power and poetry.

The booklet is just as indifferent as the sound, containing one dull essay in English and Spanish. As a special bonus, however, there is a gorgeous full-page photo of the Bolet in his prime. It is immediately clear why he has been described as being more like a buccaneer or a successful businessman or a matinee idol, rather than like a concert pianist.

For Bolet buffs, the disc is of course indispensable. So is for Liszt buffs, but only if they are not members of the Berman-Berezovsky-Cziffra gang. If you are chiefly interested in the technical side of the Studies – a harmless interest, at all events – then you definitely should skip Bolet and go for the aforementioned trio of bangers. I surmise loud banging is what most people call ''excitement'' in these pieces. Well, some of us are not so easily excited, alas. If you care much more for the music itself, subtle and suggestive as no other music for solo piano, you may just as well find something memorable in Bolet's version. For me, personally, he remains untouchable in the Studies. Only Claudio Arrau has ever timidly approached his mastery, but even the great Chilean is sometimes rushed or insensitive, or plain dull. Bolet never is.

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