Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Review: Liszt - Piano Concertos (1979) / Sonata in B minor, Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (1961) - Jorge Bolet, Alto

Bolet and Liszt at their absolute best

This is rather a strange coupling, with jarring difference in the sound between the two concertos (originally recorded for VOX in 1979) and the second half which consists of the B minor Sonata and Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (originally recorded for Everest in 1960). Never mind. Considering the low price, the terrific total timing (nearly 80 minutes) and, above all, Bolet's unique artistry, the disc is definitely worth its place on the shelves of every Lisztian, to say nothing of every fan of Jorge Bolet. So far as I know, this is the only release on CD of the two concertos, whereas the solo piano pieces are available in at least two more variants (Everest, Price-Less). I have listening experience with the former of these, and only for it can I guarantee that the sound is excellent for its age. Whatever I had to say about these early recordings of the Sonata and the Mephisto Waltz, I have said it in my review of the Everest disc. Few comments about the concertos follow.

I have always found it puzzling that Jorge Bolet didn't record any of Liszt's concertos during his DECCA years. He did record three masterpieces for piano and orchestra by Liszt and quite a few concertos by Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Grieg and Schumann in the mid-1980s. Fortunately, he had recorded both Liszt concertos a little earlier in his career. Interestingly, he did so for VOX, even though by 1979 he had already signed a contract with DECCA and started his now legendary Liszt recordings with the five Concert Etudes and Don Juan. Pity, for DECCA would have given him a better orchestra, a better conductor and a better sound. David Zinman and the Rochester Philharmonic are serviceable fellows, but they are not on par with Bolet's playing; and neither is the sound which, though generally fine as far as the piano goes, would have been all the better without annoying idiosyncrasies like those crashing cymbals in the finale of the First Concerto, or the brash brass in the first movement for that matter. But these are very minor quibbles when one is confronted with playing of Bolet's calibre.

Probably no other work by Liszt has been victim of more meretricious performances than the First Concerto. And few of his works have been more harshly criticized for being too fragmented and loosely organized than his Second Concerto. Not in Bolet's hands. Though nearly 65 years old at the time, he plays with remarkable power and enormous sonority. As usual with Bolet, his tempi are relatively deliberate and every detail is carefully articulated. Yet, for my part at least, the attention to detail is never excessive and both concerti emerge as unities which is simply futile to try to separate into different movements. Many people are fond of sneering either at Liszt's virtuoso compositions or at Jorge Bolet's refined interpretation of them, or at both indeed, but I am certainly not one of them. 

As far as I am concerned, both of Liszt's attempts in the genre of the piano concerto remain among his finest works. And Bolet's readings for VOX remain some of the most compelling on record, certainly preferable to Arrau's somewhat ponderous late attempts with Colin Davis on Philips, to say nothing of Zimerman's shameless and highly unimaginative banging on DG (with Ozawa on a bad day). By the way, the fact that the rather slow tempi were not product of Bolet's old age is amply proven by a simple comparison with his much earlier recording of the First Concerto (Everest, 1960, see the link above). As for his musicianship, and as testified by the B minor Sonata and Mephisto Waltz No. 1 from the same period, it was fully formed already in 1960, although it did deepen and mature in later years.

In short, excellent bargain for every serious Lisztian. Recordings of any of these four works are anything but rarity, but Bolet's inimitable musicianship holds on pretty well, sonic imperfections and all, against all kinds of pretenders.

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