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.

1 comment:

  1. I recall seeing some of these videos a few years ago. The Liszt Benediction in particular is nothing short of sublime. I'm kicking myself that I didn't pick up the DVD while the website was still up and running.