Jorge Bolet: Rediscovered Master

To connoisseurs of pianism, the name of Jorge Bolet (1914-1990) is legendary.  Cuban-born, his career blossomed only later in his life.  His technique was flawless, his lyrical tone was legendary, but he did not attain the renown he was due until late in his career.

He was not at his best in the recording studio, so some of his commercial recordings are not especially inspired.  In the concert hall he could be electrifying.  Fortunately, there are a number of extant recordings of his live performances.  Ward Marston, the archivist and producer of remastered recordings, primarily of singers and pianists, has assembled, remastered, and released a collection of recordings of Bolet’s live performances in a new 6-CD compilation on his own Marston label, Jorge Bolet, Volume 2:  Ambassador from the Golden Age: A Connoisseur’s Selection for the Bolet Centennial.  What a collection of treasures it is, some of them never before released.

Some of the best performances are those of Liszt, not surprising since Bolet, an unabashed Romantic, was one of the great champions of Liszt’s music.  The performance of Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 in B Minor, S. 171, recorded in Minneapolis in 1985, has rarely been approached, let alone equaled.  But equally treasurable are Bolet’s interpretations of Liszt’s operatic transcriptions and paraphrases, many of them fearsomely difficult technically.

Technical challenges hold no terrors for Bolet, and so he finds the lyricism in all that he plays.  The Donizetti-Liszt, Réminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor, S. 397, and the Verdi-Liszt Concert Paraphrase on Rigoletto, S. 434, both recorded from a live performance in New York in 1970, are beautifully played but also full of the emotion from the operas. The Wagner-Liszt, Tannhäuser: Overture, S. 442, recorded from a 1989 performance in New York, leaves one gasping at the technical skill required even to attempt to play it, let alone conquer it, as does Bolet.  Only Earl Wild compares to Bolet’s mastery of Liszt’s paraphrases.

Much of one disc is devoted to the transcriptions and arrangements of Leopold Godowsky, many of them never recorded commercially by Bolet.  A particular favorite is the Weber-Godowsky, Invitation to the Dance, Op. 65, recorded from a 1980 concert in Edinburgh. Bolet is one of the few pianists who would even attempt Godowsky’s arrangements of the Chopin Etudes, which Bolet plays here to live audiences.  Apart from his stupendous technique, the Grieg, Ballade in G Minor, Op. 24, recorded from a 1987 concert in Amsterdam, highlights the velvety tone Bolet could draw out of the piano.

There are a number of selections unique to the Bolet discography, such as the Vorisêk, Impromptu in E, Op. 7, No. 5 4:55, recorded in 1975 in New York City, and the Schlözer, Etude in A-flat, Op. 1, No. 2, from Arnhem, The Netherlands in 1974.  All of the performances on this set reflect the spontaneity of Bolet’s live performances that is sometimes lacking in his commercial recordings.  His Debussy does not show Bolet to his best advantage, and the Beethoven Sonata No. 26 in E-flat, Op. 81a, “Lebewohl,” has been recorded with distinction by other pianists, although Bolet’s interpretation does not suffer in comparison with anyone else’s.

Taken as a whole, however, this is a collection of supreme pianism that rewards both casual and serious listening.  Marston’s earlier release, Jorge Bolet in Concert Vol. 1: Chopin, is also highly recommended, not to mention his seven CD compilation of the Complete Josef Hofmann and the three CD volumes of the Complete Leopold Godowsky.  Fortunately we have this permanent testament to some of the greatest pianism of the 20th Century.

Jorge Bolet, Volume 2
Ambassador from the Golden Age: A Connoisseur’s Selection for the Bolet Centennial
Marstonn 56003-2 (6-CD Set)

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