Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Review: Liszt - Sonata in B minor / Mephisto Waltz No. 1 / Piano Concerto No. 1 / Hungarian Fantasy - Jorge Bolet, Everest, 1960-61



Precious recordings for Bolet buffs

For all piano buffs who have the additional defect of character to be great fans of Jorge Bolet – such as myself – this is a most fascinating disc. It contains four of Liszt's works recorded as early as 1960-61, when Bolet (b. 1914) still was a ''young man'' of 46-47. The performances are splendid, but the truly fascinating part is that Bolet re-recorded all of these works in his late years: Mephisto Waltz No. 1 and the Sonata in B minor for DECCA in 1982; the Hungarian Fantasy (together with London Symphony and Ivan Fischer) in 1984, again for DECCA; and the First Concerto for VOX in 1979, with Rochester Philharmonic and David Zinman. Strangely enough, the last of these recordings included also the Second Concerto and has, more or less recently, been released by Alto in combination with the same recordings of the Sonata and Mephisto Waltz No. 1 from 1960. As for Bolet's late DECCA recordings, they all can of course be found in the excellent 9-CD box-set.

Since even the combination of rarity and artistic excellence can hardly justify the exorbitant price one is asked for, before going into detail about the recordings themselves, it might be worth noting that there appears to exist another edition with absolutely the same program, issued by the charmingly named label Price-Less in the late 1980s. I have never listened to that one, but it does seem to include the very same recordings. Whether the sound is quite the same is another story, though the price is certainly worth the risk.


I have often heard Jorge Bolet accused of too much virtuosity in his early days, when he was all but unknown to the world, and too less virtuosity in his late years, when he made his celebrated recording series for DECCA and became all but a household name. I have always thought – and I still do – all that to be perfect nonsense. But I have to admit that the present disc does, at first glance, suggest similar misunderstanding. The two pieces for solo piano, both among the finest of Liszt's creations, were recorded in 1960 and they are strikingly different than Bolet's later renditions for DECCA, made more than 20 years later. The Everest recordings are a great deal faster and more daring, with demonic virtuosity worthy of Earl Wild himself which is certainly missing from the DECCA remakes. If anything, these recordings amply testify why Harold Schonberg himself has described Bolet's technique as ''stupendous''. Certainly, one doesn't hear everyday somebody tossing off so demanding works with such ease. However, the bottom line is that Bolet's virtuosity never was at the expense of the music, and this is quite evident even in 1960 when his technical prowess was at its peak. Even in the wildest passages Bolet remains first and foremost a musician, then – and only then – a dazzling virtuoso. There is no distortion of melodic lines here, nor is there any obscurity of important elements in the left hand because of glittering passage work in the right one: both common enough with superior technicians who are also indifferent musicians.

So, on the one hand, for all their captivating virtuosity, those early renditions of the Sonata and Mephisto Waltz No. 1 are, above all, wonderfully musical, without any of the usual histrionic banging they are victims of in lesser hands. On the other hand, the late recordings of the same pieces for DECCA, though definitely more restrained, are by no means without touches of remarkable for a 68-years-old man finger dexterity. But the more important point is that the DECCA recordings are the more personal and the more profound ones. Both works may have lost some speed, but the Sonata has gained grandeur and lyricism, whereas the middle part of the Mephisto Waltz has gained sensuality and depth. Nevertheless, Bolet's early recordings for Everest may well stand on their own as superb examples of devil-may-care virtuosity allied to mature musicianship.

Pretty much the same is the case with the First Concerto and the Hungarian Fantasy, only here the differences in terms of virtuosity are smaller. Apart from the 18 years between them, Bolet's recording of the First Concerto for Everest from 1961 differs but slightly from the one from 1979 for VOX. Indeed, the orchestra and the recorded sound are the greatest differences. In both cases Bolet demonstrates in the solo part his trademark blend of melting tenderness without sentimentality and high-charged drama without histrionics. Yet again, too, the later recordings are neither without flashes of breathtaking virtuosity nor without gain of wisdom. This is especially true for the late Hungarian Fantasy which makes even the fine rendition of Shura Cherkassky (with Karajan, 1960) sounds vapid in comparison. That said, Bolet's early tries for Everest are supremely enjoyable performances full of élan and dashing impulsiveness. As for Robert Irving, he is obviously no Toscanini, despite the fact that Symphony of the Air is another name for the legendary NBC Symphony, but he provides a spirited accompaniment with many charming deviations of tempo and phrasing from more modern, but less daring, interpretations.

The sound is remarkably fine for half a century old recordings made for a rather obscure label. I understand Everest enjoys some kind of fame in the States, especially among audophiles, but it is a perfectly unknown label for me. However that may be, their practice to record on 35mm film seems to have been a worthy one. For the most part the piano has excellent balance and sonority, though some of the more powerful climaxes tend to sound somewhat flat. The orchestra is also beautifully recorded, with a fine concert-hall ambience and really amazing clarity.

All in all, a magnificent disc well filled (71 minutes) with rare recordings of an outstanding artist in his absolute prime. Even though I do prefer Bolet's more intensely personal late renditions of these pieces for VOX and DECCA, these early examples are sufficiently individual artistically and stunning technically to stand on their own. For Lisztians and Bolet buffs alike, the disc is well worth having – if one can afford it.



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