Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Review: Giuseppe Di Stefano - In Concerto - Live, 1950-52, G.O.P.

Giuseppe Di Stefano

I Concerti General Motors alla TV Messicana,
Mexico City, June-July 1952

I Concerti a San Francisco, October 1950

Ed Sullivan Show, New York, 1952.
G.O.P., 2002. 2 CD. TT: 76.63+73.26.


CD 1 (76.33):
      1.     De Curtis: Tu can nun chiagne
      2.     Barrera: Granadinas
      3.     Puccini: Turandot – Nessum dorma
Mexican TV – 15/6/1952.
      4.     Tosti: Serenata*
      5.     Mario: Santa Lucia luntana**
      6.     Cioffi: Na sera a maggio
Mexican TV – 22/6/1952.
      7.     Perez-Freire: Ay, ay, ay
      8.     Puccini: Tosca – E lucevan le stelle
      9.     Cardillo: Core ‘ngrato
Mexican TV – 29/6/1952.
 10.     Nutile-Russo: Mamma mia, che vo’ sappe
 11.     Ponce: Estrelita
 12.     Tosti: Marechiare
Mexican TV – 6/7/1952.
 13.     Bellini: Vaga luna che inargenti
 14.     Bellini: Chi se ne scorda cch’io***
 15.     Tosti: A vucchella
Mexican TV – 13/7/1952.
 16.     Barberis: Munastere a Santa Chiara
 17.     Falvo: Dicintencello vuje
 18.     Di Capua: O sole mio
Mexican TV – 27/7/1952.
 19.     Verdi: Rigoletto – La donna e mobile
 20.     Traditional: Adeste fideles
 21.     Adam: O Holy Night (with Licia Albanese)
Ed Sullivan Show, 1952.

CD 2 (73.26):
      1.     Gounod: Faust – Salut! Demetre chaste et pure
      2.     Flotow: Marta – M’appari tutt’amor
      3.     Puccini: La boheme – Che gelida manina / Si, mi chiamano Mimi / O soave fanciulla (with Bidu Sayao)
San Francisco, 1/10/1950.
      4.     Massenet: Le Cid – O souverain, o juge, o pere
      5.     Verdi: Rigoletto – Ella mi fu rapita – Parmi veder le lagrime
      6.     Puccini: Madama Butterfly – Viene le sera (with Renata Tebaldi)
San Francisco, 15/10/1950.
      7.     Ponchielli: La Gioconda – Cielo e mar
      8.     Puccini: Tosca – E lucevan le stelle
      9.     Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor – Duet and Finale of Act 1 (with Lily Pons)
San Francisco – 29/10/1950.

San Francisco Opera Association Orchestra
Gaetano Merola, conductor

Giuseppe Di Stefano, tenor


*This is not Tosti’s “Serenata”. According to the discography compiled by Frank Hamilton, the song is “Serenata del burattino” by one Eugenio Mignone. Mr Hamilton also gives an orchestra (Grand Orchestra del General Motors) and a conductor (Raoul LaVista) for the Mexico City concerts. He claims that only “La donna e mobile” comes from Ed Sullivan’s show; the last two tracks on CD 1 he describes as “unknown radio broadcasts”. There are many other discrepancies between Mr Hamilton’s discography and the booklet; only the more substantial are noted below.

**Mr Hamilton notes this song as “Santa Lucia” and gives the composer as “N. N. Palardi”.

***There is actually no name given in the booklet, suggesting that the song is also by Bellini. Mr Hamilton disagrees and gives “R. Barthélemy” as the composer. The correct title is "Chi se ne scorda cchiù".


I am told that there are natural singers and made singers. Though of course he must have something of a voice the made singer owes the better part of his accomplishment to training; with taste and musical ability he can eke out the relative poverty of his organ and his singing can afford a great deal of pleasure, especially to the connoisseur; but he will never move you as you are moved to ecstasy by the pure, bird-like notes of the natural singer. The natural singer may be inadequately trained, he may have neither tact nor knowledge, he may outrage all the canons of art, but such is the magic of his voice that you are captivated. You forgive the liberties he takes, his vulgarities, his appeals to obvious emotion, when those heavenly sounds enchant your ear.

So wrote Somerset Maugham.[1] Though he was neither a musician nor a musical critic, there is a great deal of truth in his words. Giuseppe Di Stefano (or Pippo, as he is affectionately known to his fans) was a natural singer. He committed all of the original sins at one time or another, though less often than one might think as his natural taste was remarkably good. He never had the technique of Bergonzi, Krauss or Gedda. Then again, they never had the emotive power of his voice. There was much the same situation between Pavarotti (a natural singer) and Domingo (a made singer) in more recent times. Domingo’s longevity, repertoire and critical acclaim are far greater, but he has never moved – and never will – the masses with his voice as Pavarotti did.

If Pippo’s art, whatever his vagaries of taste, has the power to move you, you must have this set. It contains live recordings from 1950 and 1952 that capture him in his absolute prime. Now, Pippo’s prime was tragically short. It was confined to the late 40s and the early 50s. Unwise choice of heavy parts (Radames, Alvaro, Canio, Calaf) and loose life (so the evil tongues say) ruined his voice in a decade or so. As early as the mid-50s, it had begun to show signs of strain. Ten years later, there was virtually nothing left of his magnificent lyric tenor. Simply compare his two studio recordings of Tosca. If you only know the second one (1962, Karajan, Decca), you might think there is nothing much wrong with Pippo. He still sounds better than 99 percent of his contemporaries. But when you hear his Cavaradossi merely nine years earlier (1953, De Sabata, EMI), you might just be shocked by the change. He continued to sing songs and small parts until the early 1990s. The less said about this period, the better.

Pippo’s performances on this set make all but the very best of his studio recordings pale in comparison. The first disc contains 18 tracks, mostly Italian songs and an occasional aria, recorded in June and July 1952 by the Mexican TV at the so-called General Motors concerts in Mexico City. By way of bonus tracks, there are three selections from Ed Sullivan’s show. The second disc contains only opera, both arias and duets (with Bidu Sayao, Renata Tebaldi and Lily Pons), recorded in October 1950 in San Francisco, complete with the voice of an unknown announcer.

You have to hear these performances in order to believe them. The voice is fabulous. The killer high notes are effortless, ringing, jaw-dropping. Just hear the finale of “Nessun dorma”. Pippo’s famous pianissimi are as breathtaking as ever, most notably in “E lucevan le stelle”, but also in the end of Faust’s “Salut!”, “Ay, ay, ay” and especially in “Granadinas”, a beautiful Spanish song of which Pippo gives the definitive performance. If he had but few peers in the operatic repertoire, he had none whatsoever in the realm of the Italian (or Spanish) song. Just compare Kraus’ vapid rendition of “Granadinas” with Pippo’s impassioned delivery here and you will know what I mean. Nor can I think of any singer who can compare with Pippo’s full-bloodied renditions of classics like “O sole mio”, “Core ‘ngrato”, “Tu ca nun chiagne” and “Na sera e maggio”. He is an absolute master of the controlled excess they require.

For this is precisely the point. It’s not just the voice. The sheer musicianship is amazing, too. Much like Caruso (another natural singer par excellence), Pippo had an instinctive grasp about the dramatic value of words and phrases; his “canto” may not be “bel” enough for the connoisseurs, but for me it works really fine. Even at his best he does distort melodic lines occasionally, but for the most part he only inflects them in a peculiar but dramatically relevant way. Opera, like any other art that combines words and music, is an impossible thing by default. You cannot have perfect diction, like Pippo, without losing some of the music’s elegance – unless, of course, you choose a completely passionless way of performance. This Pippo could never do. It is important to understand that his “defects” were not wilful eccentricities. They stemmed from firm artistic convictions. “It’s no good just singing the music,” he used to say. “You have to sing the words, and sing them from your heart.”[2]

Of course, there is a catch. The sound on the first disc is atrocious. I hasten to add that Pippo’s incredible singing easily transcends any sonic imperfections. Nevertheless, you should be prepared to put up with a good deal of background noise and heavy distortion that bring to mind early electrical recordings. The haunting clarinet in the beginning of “E lucevan le stelle” is just one example of cringeworthy, indeed painful, aural experience. The ending of “Granadinas” is marred by a sudden and particularly nasty sound change. It’s not enough to obscure that heavenly pianissimo, but it’s rather unpleasant all the same. I suppose one is unwise to expect more from the Mexican TV in 1952. Fortunately, the sound on the second disc is much better.

The presentation is what one should expect from a small Italian label. The booklet contains recording details and a delightful collection of photographs of Pippo in various roles, from warhorses like Tosca and La Traviata to rarities like Wagner’s Rienzi and Mascagni’s Iris, but no liner notes at all. Who needs them with a voice like that anyway? There is a second "booklet" which serves the purpose of G.O.P. catalogue. The set is impressively out of print and may be hard to find, not to mention slightly expensive. It is worth all the time and money you are likely to spend on it. But only, I repeat, if Pippo’s artistry means something special to you – and if you don’t suffer from the severe and all but incurable disease called audiophilia. If Giuseppe Di Stefano is just another tenor for you, don’t bother.   

[1] The Summing Up (1938), xxiii.
[2] Patrick O’Connor, liner notes to Giuseppe Di Stefano: The Opera Singer, EMI Classics, 2008, 3 CD, ICON series.

Review: Liszt - Funeral Odes, From the Cradle to the Grave, Two Episodes from Lenau's "Faust" - Volkov - Hyperion, 2010

[Review originally written in 2011.]

4 stars for the interpretation, plus 1 star for the courage

It is just wonderful to see a brand new disc (recorded in 2010) dedicated entirely to Liszt rarities. Hyperion are thus doing a far better job in celebrating the 200th anniversary from Liszt's birth than DG, EMI, SONY or Brilliant who seem stuck with mammoth compilations of dubious value. All works on this disc are among Liszt's most rarely performed symphonic creations and each one of them has received no more than a few recordings. Therefore, this is a most worthy addition to a fairly slender discography, its minor faults being excused by the extreme rarity of the music.

Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (''From the Cradle to the Grave'') is Liszt's last, 13th, symphonic poem, composed as late as 1881, full two decades after the last such work from the Weimar period was published. Apart from the several complete recordings of Liszt's symphonic poems (
Haitink, Masur, Joo, Halasz, Noseda), I think it has been recorded separately only by Georg Solti. It is a beautiful work that does not deserve so high degree of neglect. The outer two parts are tranquil and ethereal, written and scored with the economy so characteristic for Liszt's late years, and very fitting to evoke the ''cradle'' and ''grave'' indeed. The middle part is very short but very tempestuous, looking back to the Romantic rhetoric of the Weimar years and trying to convey with music the struggle for existence that occupies most of our lives.

Trois Odes funèbres are an even greater rarity. Apart from Leslie Howard's recording of the solo piano versions in volume 3 of his unique series, I think only Halasz and Rickenbacher have recorded the orchestral versions (Halasz, indeed, has recorded only the last one). Since I have never heard either, this performance was my introduction to these gloomy and brooding works which, apparently, had a great deal of personal significance for Liszt. Composed between 1860 and 1866, they reflected the death of two of his children, his son Daniel in 1859 and his elder daughter Blandine in 1862, which presumably inspired the composition of Les Morts and La Notte, respectively.

Les Morts is a beautiful and serene piece, quoting from several religious chants and with a most moving inclusion of a chorus singing few lines in Latin, the first one of which – ''Happy the dead that die in the Lord!'' – is taken from Lamennais' poem. La Notte employs the haunting theme from ''Il Penseroso'', a piano piece composed as early as 1839 and later revised for the second book of Années de pèlerinage; incidentally, Liszt also used the same quatrain from Michelangelo which is supposed, together with the eponymous sculpture, to have inspired him to create one of his most disturbing creations, in whatever version you choose to listen to it. If anything, the main theme sounds even more brooding in its orchestral guise. Unlike the piano piece, here there is an entirely new central section of exquisite beauty and the early thematic material is additionally developed. Finally, there is Le Triomphe funebre du Tasso (''The Funeral Triumph of Tasso'') which also uses old material from one of Liszt's earliest symphonic poems (Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo) describing the life and struggles of the Italian Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso. The funeral ode refers to his posthumous fame and is an entirely original composition. It has an admirable restraint altogether different than the grand finale of the symphonic poem composed more than a decade earlier.

All in all, I am not sure that any of these three Funeral Odes is Liszt at his orchestral best, but they are well worth hearing none the less for that. It is wonderful that they are recorded here as a set, exactly as Liszt wished them to be performed.

Zwei Episoden aus Lenaus Faust is the earliest work on the disc, having being completed by 1861. The second of these ''episodes'' is no other than the famous Mephisto Waltz No. 1, much more popular in its earlier version for solo piano. Still, the orchestral version has been recorded by several great conductors such as 
Karajan, Solti and Haitink. Thus the nearly complete neglect of the first of these episodes, Der nächtliche Zug, is all the more difficult to explain. Apart from the present one, I know of only three other recordings of it, all of them together with the Mephisto Waltz and all of them worth hearing: Masur, Ansermet, Joo. The works work surprisingly fine as a set, which is of course how they should be performed and recorded. It is interesting to note that Ilan Volkov uses the alternative, quiet, ending rather than the better-known, but less appropriate I think, loud orchestral tour de force. So far as I can remember, Ansermet is the only other conductor who does that.

The very young Ilan Volkov (b. 1976) has done a fine job at the helm of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. My only quibble with his conducting is certain timidity which is hardly desirable even in the essentially introvert Funeral Odes, let alone in the ebullient sections of the Mephisto Waltz. That said, for so young a man Volkov demonstrates, I think, a firm grasp of the orchestra and a remarkable understanding of this not particularly easy to assimilate music. He certainly may use a little fire in the climaxes, but on the whole he is quite sensitive to Liszt's ingenious orchestration and strange melodic ideas. Apart from Karajan and Solti, for whose demonic drive he is no match, Volkov’s Mephisto Waltz stands only too well comparisons with the renditions of Masur (not so dismal as in most of his Liszt recordings) or Haitink (wonderfully musical, but meek and mild). Even though I do prefer the grander approach of Joo or Ansermet in Der nächtliche Zug, I find Volkov none the less fascinating for that.

The recorded sound is well produced, with great clarity and dynamic range, but with somewhat shoddy tutti and lack of depth in the strings. It is true that most of this music avoids massive orchestral climaxes, but a more prominent brass and better balanced percussion instruments, why not more volume in the strings, might have had a beneficial effect in the Funeral Odes and especially in the Faust Episodes. After all, even in his later years Liszt never fully abandoned the occasional burst of – if you choose to believe – genuine, sincere and healthy dose of rhetoric. Indeed, Liszt might have agreed with Somerset Maugham that excess on occasion is exhilarating for it prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of a habit. 

The booklet is very finely done, with a most suitable painting by Caspar David Friedrich on the cover. The liner notes are by Leslie Howard himself and he provides the same kind of concise and perceptive analyses of the history of composition and the musical value of each work as we well know he is capable of. There are here many insightful touches that are bound to raise your appreciation of these works. For instance, Liszt not only based Les Morts on the eponymous literary work by Lamennais (quoted in full in the liner notes), but he actually followed the poem verse by verse with his music, repeating the same motif every time the aforementioned line (''Happy the dead that die in the Lord!'') occurs. So this appears to be one of the very few examples in Liszt's oeuvre where he wrote pure program music with distinctly descriptive character. Contrary to the popular misunderstanding, most of Liszt's program music was much more concerned with philosophical ideas, characters, moods and impressions, rather than with narrative of events or description of details. The amazing thing about Les Morts is that it doesn't sound loose or fragmented as one might expect. Another fascinating detail from Leslie's liner notes is the musical reference to Liszt's Hungarian rhapsodies in the middle section of La Notte – which cannot be missed even by the layman – which symbolises Liszt's own feeling that he would die far from his native Hungary. He was quite right as it turned out, but to dispel any doubt about the middle part of La Notte he inserted above the opening phrase the words of Virgil from his Aeneid: ''And dying he remembers fair Argos''.

All in all, an excellent disc for every Lisztian, or for anybody anxious to explore some of Liszt's most introverted and atmospheric music from his late years. Beautifully selected, decently recorded, lavishly presented, perfectly filled (nearly 79 minutes) and, most importantly, well played and sensitively interpreted, this CD is a must even at full price. Let us hope that all works on it will be more frequently recorded in the future.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Review: Louis Kentner plays Liszt - Vox Legends, 1992, 2 CD

 Amazing recordings of a very unjustly forgotten Lisztian

My introduction to Louis Kentner (1905-1987) was rather unusual, namely his two compelling chapters in an excellent (though a little dated) volume of essays entirely dedicated to Liszt and edited by Alan Walker himself.[1] Only later did I discover that, in addition to a fine writer, Louis Kentner also was an outstanding pianist. Unfortunately, very few of his recordings are currently available, virtually all of them second-hand. This double disc is one of the few I could find and now, having listened to it quite a number of times, I cannot recommend it highly enough to everybody seriously interested in Liszt's piano music.

To begin with a few quibbles, the CD is pretty poorly presented. The documentation is appallingly sloppy: no recording dates, let alone locations, are given. The only indication about the time of recording is a short note that these recordings were issued on LP in the 1960s and early 1970s. Well, this is what you can find on the back cover – inside the booklet the years are ''late 1950s and early 1960s''. Which is the true statement is anybody's guess, though the former looks more probable. The booklet itself is a strange mixture of perceptive liner notes and hackneyed clichés about Liszt's notorious dualities (the genius-charlatan stuff, you know), to say nothing of the very short biographical note of Louis Kentner that is even more perfunctory than the one in Wikipedia (which is miserable enough).[2] Among the liner notes, however, despite few muddled passages about the history or the identity of certain compositions, there are some valuable passages such as extended analyses of the Don Juan Fantasy and the Faust Waltz including the exact parts from Mozart's and Gounod's operas, respectively, that inspired them.

Another caveat to be kept in mind is, of course, the sound. The back cover boasts ''digitally remastered from original analog tapes'' and the sound is indeed very clean and with a fine dynamic range. But the balance is pretty shaky: the high register is almost always clangy and the bass is not a little overblown. For an early stereo, whatever the year, it is not a bad achievement, but I daresay VOX might have done a better job. Never mind. As soon as you hear Kentner's playing, you wouldn't care at all about sonic imperfections.

The discs are not especially well-filled (64:35, 64:29), but they contain an amazingly varied program which is most probably the best illustration of Liszt's versatility in so limited a space.

The first disc consists entirely of original compositions, ranging in time from Harmonies poetiques and religuieses (1833-34) and the first piece from Apparitions (1834) to La Lugubre gondola (1882, the first piece of that name) and Nuages gris (1881, also known as Trübe Wolken); in other words, ranging from Liszt's middle twenties to his early seventies. The range of moods is equally startling. Elegy No. 2 and especially Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude are among Liszt's most lyrical creations, whereas Ballade No. 2 is surely among his most dramatic and full of grand Romantic rhetoric works. Harmonies poetiques and religuieses must not be mistaken with the cycle of ten pieces that bears the same name but was composed more than a decade later. Incidentally, Benediction... is the third piece of this cycle whereas the fourth, Pensee des Morts, is an extensive reworking of part of the original Harmonies poetiques and religuieses. It is wonderful to find here the vastly under-recorded early piece. It is way more daring and sometimes so reminiscent of Liszt's late works that it is all the more difficult to convince oneself that he actually was 22-23 years old when he composed it.

The second disc is (almost) entirely dedicated to Liszt's arrangements of music by others which cover the whole ground between more or less straightforward transcriptions (the Spinning Song) to elaborate paraphrases based on several motives from one or more operas (such as Valse de Concert on themes by Donizetti and the celebrated Faust Waltz which Gounod himself could never have dreamed of) to stunning fantasies which compress whole operas into one piano piece with unmatched skill and are for all purposes original compositions (such as the Don Juan Fantasy, of course). As a special bonus, there are Four Little Piano Pieces of charming delicacy: a stark contrast with the scintillating bravura of the arrangements indeed. It might be useful here to remind the curious Lisztian that these lovely little pieces are also known as Fünf Klavierstücke (these four plus one more, check Leslie Howard, 
vol. 11) and since they were composed in the course of no fewer than 14 years (1865-1879), they were never intended as a cycle. If any of these pieces sounds vaguely familiar to you, this is probably due to the fact that the second one was derived from the second piece of another, much more famous set: Liebesträume.

Describing the artistry of any pianist is difficult enough a business, and the result usually is a mess of highly subjective phrases and futile comparisons. But describing the playing of Louis Kentner is well-nigh impossible. By modern standards it is often eccentric, but who says that modern standards are the best ones? It should be remembered that Kentner was born as early as 1905, less than two decades after the death of Liszt himself when many of his pupils were still teaching and concertizing. In those historical times – a mere century ago, but to modern piano lovers they seems as ancient as the pyramids – the printed notes had not acquired the sacredness which is now bestowed on them, nor were tempo indications considered more important than expression and feeling.

Perhaps the most idiosyncratic interpretation of Louis Kentner here is the Benediction... for it is taken way faster than usual and has absolutely nothing in common with Arrau's intense lyricism or Bolet's ethereal serenity. In fact, Kentner's tumultuous passion reminds me of the young Brendel trying to break some Viennese instruments (again for VOX, incidentally) in the late 1950s. However, very much unlike Brendel indeed, Kentner doesn't use a sledgehammer in the climaxes and he easily achieves enormous sonority without any banging whatsoever. No less remarkable is the Don Juan Fantasy which is played with supreme panache yet with remarkable subtlety as well, combining the best features of Earl Wild's fiery virtuosity with Jorge Bolet's poised elegance. Despite at least one annoying cut (in the transition to the last part) and a good many sonic imperfections, this is certainly one of the finest renditions of this daunting piece I have ever heard. So, for that matter, is the Second Ballade: another combination of sweeping power and sensitive musicianship not often found in this piece.

All in all, unique and fascinating pianism from another era which you are as unlikely to encounter anywhere today as it is improbable to find another double CD which illustrates better the extraordinary range of forms and feelings mastered by Liszt. It is a shame that these marvellous recordings are not more easily accessible. From Naxos I am given to understand that Louis Kentner recorded a great deal of Liszt for VOX in the 1960s and 1970s – complete Transcendental Studies and Hungarian Rhapsodies, Paganini Etudes and more paraphrases – and I am stupefied that virtually of all of it, apparently, is impossible to be obtained. There are also some speculations about certain physical decline of Kentner in these recordings, for he was well in his sixties, but if he had any technical shortcomings at the time, he certainly managed very successfully to convert them in artistic advantages as I have never noticed them.

[1] Franz Liszt: the Man & His Music, Barrie & Jenkins, 1970.
[2] Much more extensive biography of Louis Kentner is available on the Naxos website.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Review: Jorge Bolet - Live in Atlanta (1987) - The Virtuoso Pianist, 2 DVD

Jorge Bolet Live

Chopin, Liszt, Franck,
Godowsky, Moszkowski, Albeniz

The Virtuoso Pianist, 2008.
2 DVD. TT: ca 60+104 min. Region: 0. Stereo. Colour.

Recorded: 19-20 April 1987, Georgia-Pacific Center, Atlanta, Georgia.

DVD 1:*

Opening credits [1]
Introduction by Frank Bell [2]

Chopin: Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23 [3]
Chopin: Ballade No. 2 in F major, Op. 38 [4]
Chopin: Ballade No. 3 in A flat major, Op. 47 [5]
Chopin: Ballade No. 4 in F sharp minor, Op. 52 [6]
Liszt: Ballade No. 2 in B minor [7]-[8]

Applause / End credits [9]

DVD 2:

Opening credits [1]
Introduction by Frank Bell [2]

Franck: Prelude, Chorale and Fugue [3]-[9]
Liszt: Sonetto 104 del Petrarca [10]-[11]
Liszt: Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude [12]-[18]

Intermission / Applause [19]

Liszt: Dante Sonata [20]-[21]
Liszt: Venezia e Napoli [22]-[29]
I. Gondoliera [22]-[23]
II. Canzone [24]
III. Tarantella [25-29]

Godowsky: Elegy for Left Hand [30]
Moszkowski: The Juggleress [31]
Albeniz-Godowsky: Tango [32]
Chopin: Nocturne, Op. 15 No. 2 [33]

Applause / End credits [34]

*In square brackets: DVD chapters.


Some years ago, I purchased these two DVDs from The Virtuoso Pianist website. I had a most pleasant correspondence with Frank Bell, the producer of the concerts as well as of Bolet’s last audio recording for DECCA (live recital from 1988, released posthumously), who produced the DVDs on demand and shipped them to the other side of the world. They cost me $30 apiece and they were worth every cent. I have already got my money’s worth many times over. Unfortunately, the website doesn’t seem to exist anymore. This is considerable loss to posterity. 

To appreciate just how priceless these DVDs are, we need to have a brief look at Bolet’s video recordings that have survived. Very few of them have been released commercially. Three short pieces by Chopin, Liszt and Albeniz from a 1962 London broadcast on a DVD largely dedicated to Cziffra and Moiseiwitsch are the only video recordings of Bolet which are more or less easy to obtain. There is a great Chopin-Liszt studio recital recorded in 1987 in the Ripponlea House, Melbourne, but this has been released on DVD only in Japan. A fascinating rendition of Rhapsody in Blue with Paul Whiteman conducting is available on the VAI DVD Great Pianists of the Bell Telephone Hour (1959-1967). A handful of clips on YouTube, a few low-quality discs on Classical Video Rarities, including a Rachmaninoff Third but mostly TV appearances from the 1980s, and – and that’s all.

Mr Bell told me that in his series of video concerts he usually asked the pianists to perform the same program on two successive nights and later chose the better takes. But on 19 April 1987, Jorge played Chopin’s ballades so well that Frank deemed their repetition unnecessary. The pianist agreed and changed the program for the next concert. This is why we have two DVDs instead of one. Bolet fans worldwide are deeply grateful.

In April 1987, Jorge was only slightly past his prime and still incomparable. He had already recorded for DECCA all these works except Franck’s masterpiece, which he recorded on the next year. The live performances here are at least as fine. Jorge proceeds in his typical, leisurely and relaxed, way, with subtle tempo fluctuations and gradual building of massive climaxes. Chopin’s ballades emerge as organic unities in which every note has its special place, not as the jumbles of incoherent sections so often the case in the hands of many other pianists. Liszt’s monumental Second Ballade, “concerned, as it were, less with personal suffering than with great happenings on an epic scale, barbarian invasions, cities in flames – tragedies of public, rather than private, import” in Sacheverell Sitwell’s memorable if misguided words[1], is a journey of epic proportions under Bolet’s hands. The Dante Sonata and the outer sections of the Tarantella are powerful without banging and dramatic without exaggeration. Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, one of the great masterpieces for piano as Mr Bell rightly observes, has never been played with more elegance before or since.

The interpretations are pretty much the same as the studio recordings, but it’s quite another story to see them. Such is the power of sight, that comparisons with the audio recordings are slightly impossible. With stooped shoulders and utterly impassive face, frozen with intense concentration, Jorge Bolet at the piano is a strange sight. He looks (but doesn’t sound!) surprisingly clumsy in the more robust moments, yet in the meditative passages his caressing the keys is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Speaking of meditative passages, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude may be the highlight of these concerts. According to Mr Bell, it was he who urged Jorge to learn the piece. If so, posterity should be grateful to him. This video recording and Bolet’s studio version (1983) are as close to definitive performances as anything. Only Claudio Arrau comes close to this level, but even he remains firmly at second place.

Technically speaking, the quality may disappoint the more fastidious connoisseurs. I am not one of them, though. The picture is not HD and the sound is not 5.1, but both are quite good enough to appreciate Bolet’s artistry. The camera work resembles a cruder version of the stunts in La Roque D'Antheron. The hall is small and ill-lit, the handheld camera is a little shaky and sometimes intrusive, but there are wonderful close-ups of the hands and the keyboard. Occasionally, when Jorge has to negotiate substantial leaps, striking bird’s-eye views are also employed. The sound has a fine dynamic range and extraordinary clarity. One could really appreciate the polyphonic richness of Bolet’s playing. One is not always allowed to do this on Bolet’s DECCA recordings. The Baldwin’s tone is light, luminous and beautiful. It’s not difficult to see, and hear, why it was reportedly one of Jorge’s favourite pianos.

The DVDs – if you can still order them from somewhere! – come in slim jewel cases without anything like covers. There are no extras or even menus; after a brief biographical introduction by Frank Bell’s voice, the program simply starts. No matter. Each work is accurately announced by subtitles and Mr Bell’s voice. The chapters allow you to jump across the contents, though they may land you in the middle of a piece. I don’t know about piano buffs in general or fans of Liszt and Chopin in particular, for these are highly idiosyncratic interpretations, but fans of Jorge Bolet would love to have these DVDs regardless of the price or the presentation. They are gems. (And they are not region-coded, so they will play anywhere in the world.)

By the way, the introduction is the same in both DVDs. It’s worth hearing twice. Mr Bell has a very pleasant voice and knows what he’s talking about: “Jorge Bolet’s flawless mechanism, rich velvety tone, and unerring mastery of style has put him in a class by himself.” Very well said!

[1] Sacheverell Sitwell, LisztDover, 1967, p. 193.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Review: Liszt - Faust Symphony - Sinopoli - DG/Eloquence, 1996

Considerable disappointment

Having been fascinated by Sinopoli's tremendous rendition of Liszt's Dante Symphony, I was naturally excited to find out that he had also recorded the Faust Symphony with the same orchestra, for the same label, and roughly at the same time. Though the competition in this field is considerably more formidable than as regards Liszt's other symphony, which is indeed vastly under-recorded, I venture the suggestion that Sinopoli's nearly complete failure here has nothing to do with that. It is perplexing how the same man conducting the same orchestra in the same period of his life can produce so hugely different results. Sinopoli's Dante remains my absolutely first choice, rivalled but hardly equalled let alone surpassed by Barenboim alone. But Sinopoli's Faust is, if not the last, certainly one of my last choices; and that has nothing to do with the fact that quite a few eminent conductors have recorded it (Muti, Bernstein, Horenstein, Beecham, Barenboim, Rattle, Solti, to name but a few).

It is interesting to observe that Sinopoli's Dante is one of the slowest on record, whereas his Faust is one of the fastest. Indeed, at less than 68 minutes, Sinopoli is almost as fast as the incandescent Jascha Horenstein; but where the latter creates one of the most exciting Faust on record, the former ends up a total mess. To say that Sinopoli's performance is rushed is a gross understatement. The climaxes in the first part, the ''Gretchen'' theme, the final chorus: all of them are taken at ridiculous speed and with hardly any idea of what lies behind the notes. Having a fine orchestra and a superior label at his disposal, Sinopoli is virtually immune to sloppiness of execution or inferior sound quality. All the same, rushing through the score like that cannot be saved by technical perfection. On the top of all that, Sinopoli's shoddy climaxes – shoddy as interpretation, not as performance – are often additionally marred by his bizarre, to say the least, ideas of orchestral colour; one of the most dismaying examples occurs towards the end of the first movement where part of the brass suddenly ''leaps out'' of the orchestra and gives me quite a shock. The best about this recording is Vinson Cole whose tenor is not especially powerful, but its tenderness fits his part here wonderfully. With the exception of Gösta Windbergh on Muti's recording, I cannot recall a more moving rendition of Die Ewig-Weibliche.

I am grateful to Eloquence for having made this recording available at budget price. This is just about all that it is worth. The original DG disc is currently – and thankfully – out of print and second-hand copies are almost indecently expensive. May it remain out of print. I see that the Eloquence re-issue is not available either. So much the better for the Faust Symphony indeed! Such a great music deserves much more than that.