Thursday, 30 May 2013

Review: Liszt - Piano Works, vol. 1 - Jorge Bolet - DECCA, 1982

The beginning of a legendary series

Well, this is not quite true. Even though it bears ''Vol. 1'' in its title, this was actually Bolet's third Liszt recording for DECCA, after the five Concert Etudes and the Don JuanFantasy in 1978 and 12 transcriptions of Schubert songs in 1981.

Yet it was with this particular recording, made in London's Kingsway Hall in February 1982, that Bolet's now celebrated late series of Liszt recordings for DECCA really did begin. For a little more than three years – until March 1985 – Jorge Bolet recorded seven discs for the famous British company, including the Sonata in B minor, Venezia e Napoli, the first two books of Années de Pèlerinage, the Transcendental Studies, and more. Although Bolet was 67-70 years old at the time, he had lost but a little of the dazzling virtuosity of his youth. He had also gained a greater insight into the Liszt idiom. It is this insight that makes these late recordings so special, if not necessarily to everybody's taste. Fortunately, they are now available as a handsome and absurdly cheap box-set from DECCA which includes the above-mentioned seven discs, with their programs preserved as they were originally issued, together with the Schubert-Liszt songs coupled with a fine rendition of the vastly underrated orchestration of the Wanderer-Fantasie (with LPO and Solti) plus the Concert Etudes, the Don Juan Fantasy and a complete recording of the Consolations (6 pieces, recorded in March 1985).

Disc 1 in this priceless box set is the disc that is being reviewed here in its original edition. It has a different cover (with a traditional portrait of Liszt) and fine liner notes by Bryce Morrison, but the sound is exactly the same. The program consists of six pieces carefully selected as to illustrate Liszt's unique versatility. Half of the compositions are entirely original ones (Mephisto Waltz No. 1, Funerailles and no. 3 from the set called Liebesträume), whereas the rest represents Liszt's unmatched ability to take music of others and make it completely his own, be these others unknown Hungarian composers (Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12), the legendary violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini (La Campanella) or the great Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi (Rigoletto Paraphrase). The fashion to degrade Liszt because of his passion for arranging others' music has long since passed. As for the passion of some people to degrade Bolet's ''lack of brilliance'', I would say only this: it's easy to find more virtuoso performances of these pieces; but to find more individual renditions which do not violate the music – that is another matter.

Tracks listing and recording details.
The key word to Jorge Bolet's interpretations – especially but not only in his late years – is restraint. What does that mean? It simply means that he refuses to rape Liszt's music by making something fast and loud out of it. Instead, Bolet bets on sumptuous sound with orchestral sonority (produced on Bechstein, as usual in his late recordings) and beautifully executed melodic lines of operatic opulence. No rush, no banging, no distortion. Oddly enough, there is a great of deal of drama and passion where necessary, only they lack the violent histrionics usually – and wrongly! – regarded as essential for playing Liszt.

Many people, including some real piano lovers, are simple-minded enough to equate speed with virtuosity. They are very wide of the mark indeed; the two things have nothing in common. Speed is what every diligent piano student with a minor amount of talent achieves after several years of toil. Virtuosity is transcending fearsome technical difficulties in order to bring out everything a great piece of music has to offer – without ruining it. Jorge Bolet was a genuine virtuoso with colossal technique that never was used for its own sake. A rare thing indeed, today more than ever before.

Now let's look more carefully at the contents of this CD and Bolet's interpretations.

Being some five minutes long, his La Campanella is surely one of the slowest ever recorded – which for many means also the worst. But this is a very primitive point of view. Just like the notion that La Campanella is nothing but a glittering encore piece to show off your finger dexterity. As a matter of fact, the third of the so-called, informally, Paganini Etudes is a stunning re-working of a theme by Paganini (from the finale of his Second Violin Concerto) which is so ingenious that it virtually amounts to original composition. In the hands of Bolet it is indeed a miniature tone poem of exquisite playfulness which subtly builds to a mighty climax; note his superb command of the melodic line at that point. Have you ever noticed how beautiful it is? I hadn't – until I heard Bolet.

Pretty much the same is the case with the justly famous Concert Paraphrase from Rigoletto. The music is of course Verdi's, the beautiful theme from the amazing quartet in the last act of his opera. But the treatment is so entirely Lisztian that it is actually a fully original composition. Bolet's tempo is not the slowest on record, but it is the perfect one. Some pianists – let me not mention names for piano fans are sensitive creatures – slow down the piece abominably, in some misguided search of profoundness, others toss it off as if they were chasing a plane. Bolet, as always, is in a class of his own. He plays with extraordinary sonority and very deft fingers, yet never are the charming left-hand transformations of the main theme lost in the scintillating cascades of the right hand. The far from negligible amounts of wistfulness and poignancy contained in this extraordinary piece aren't lost, either. The finale is on the grand scale yet without an ounce of exaggeration. This is what I call virtuosity.

The Twelfth Hungarian Rhapsody is one of the longest and most complex among Liszt's 19 pieces with that title. It is a dazzling kaleidoscope of lyrical and dramatic episodes, in both of which Bolet's approach works remarkably well. It is a pity that he never recorded another of the Hungarian Rhapsodies for solo piano, but he did record the Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Themes for piano and orchestra, an arrangement of the 14th Rhapsody for solo piano. Both works display the same inimitably Lisztian blend of impressive virtuosity weaved into richly melodious material. Bolet never misses a single detail when it comes to bringing all the beauty of these pieces. Nor does he overdo the bravura passages.

Funérailles is my only slight disappointment. For once, Bolet goes a little too far with his restraint and the terrifying left-hand octaves and the following climax lack the tragic grandeur of the best versions on disc. Then again, Horowitz's mind-blowing account recorded in 1950 for RCA is just about impossible to be surpassed anyway. That said, Bolet makes the middle section singing like nobody else, and his subtle and suggestive introduction (which is supposed to represent death bells) is a fine alternative to Horowitz's tremendous clangour.

Mephisto Waltz No. 1 is yet another mega-popular piece of Liszt which is often misunderstood as too explicitly programmatic by scholars or mutilated with lightning speed by fine pianists but would-be artists. Whatever the inspiration by Lenau's Faust might have been or whatever nightingale songs and violin tuning Liszt might have thought worth his while to describe in music, the piece must stand or fall as music alone. It is unbelievable how much depth Mephisto Waltz No. 1 does gain when played at normal speed and by a man who is not just a great pianist but a great artist as well. Without any cheap playing to the gallery, Bolet creates a performance of amazing colour and variety, worthy of the equally effective, though far less popular, orchestral version of the piece. The middle part is especially miraculous, conveying sensuality as strongly as it is possible to be conveyed by music. The outer sections do not lack virtuosity at all (but they do lack rushing and banging), and the finale is pretty powerful. At the same time, there are numerous compelling details that come forward with rare vividness, for in other hands they are usually lost in meretricious showing-off.

Finally, there is the ultra-hyper-mega-giga-famous third piece from the set Liebesträume (which is not called "Liebestraum" as constantly misspelled). Well, quite simply, Jorge Bolet owns this lovely nocturne. For Ensayo, RCA and DECCA he has made four recordings of it between 1969 and 1982: the worst of these is light years ahead of anything else I have ever heard. Though incomparable in the most dashing pieces, Bolet's forte always was the more lyrical section of the piano literature. If there is another performance of Liszt's most famous piece that rivals Bolet's in terms of singing line (for the piece exists as a song as well, a typical duality for Liszt), subtle tempo fluctuations and marvellously impassioned climax, let me know about it. Unlike some young mediocrities who slow down until they reach the bottom of the most saccharine sentimentality imaginable, Bolet is not in the least afraid of taking faster tempo than usual, yet without doing any harm to the music whatsoever. Quite to the contrary: the piece is transformed into a most beautiful operatic aria full of ''love dreams''.

If this disc has any serious drawback, this is DECCA's nearly dismal sound – almost always the case with Bolet's late recordings, alas. The treble is almost always unnecessarily prominent while the bass is as flat as a pancake and as hard as a polished marble surface. Too bad that Bolet's unmistakable tonal palette and great sonority should be marred by incompetent recording engineers. The clarity is of course admirable, but any traces of depth or warmth have been completely lost. I am sure they were there during the recording sessions.

I would never claim that I don't listen to other performances of these pieces. Of course I do; that's what makes this music truly great: the infinite scope for interpretation. But these renditions of Jorge Bolet have always been, and no doubt will continue to be, pretty high on my list, even in the case of Funérailles where he is certainly not my first choice. Moreover, at least four of the other five recordings on this disc are the ones I most often come back to.

P. S. Interestingly enough, the priceless Liszt recital released not so long ago by RCA contains no less than half of these pieces recorded by Bolet exactly a decade before their analogues for DECCA. All earlier versions are faster and more vigorously played, none of them significantly enough to have any doubt about the identity of the artist. Even ten years younger and very much in his prime, Bolet's unmistakable artistry was all there and it hardly deteriorated during his late years for DECCA, not in the beginning of the 1980s at any rate. So much for the notorious ''change'' in Bolet's old age that's supposed to have made his playing more ''deliberate'', ''stiff'', ''stodgy'', etc., etc.

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