Jorge Bolet’s first teacher was his sister Maria, and at the age of twelve he performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor K. 466 with the Havana Symphony Orchestra. At thirteen he entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where he studied piano with David Saperton, the son-in-law of Leopold Godowsky, and also received advice from Godowsky, Josef Hofmann and Moriz Rosenthal. During 1935 he travelled to Paris and London, then returned to the Curtis Institute to study conducting with Fritz Reiner. He made his North American debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy and gave a recital at New York’s Town Hall. However, although he won the Naumburg International Piano Competition in New York his career was slow to start and he returned to the Curtis Institute to teach, becoming the assistant to Rudolf Serkin. It was not until the 1970s that Bolet began to attain the recognition he deserved, helped in part by the critic of the New York Times, Harold Schonberg, who championed Bolet’s cause: ‘The best piano recital this listener has encountered during the season was given by Jorge Bolet…He may well be the greatest living exponent of the kind of playing practised by such giants of the past as Hofmann, Rachmaninov and Lhévinne. Indeed, he may be the only one.’ Performances at Hunter College and Alice Tully Hall in New York led to a Carnegie Hall recital in 1974. This was an important occasion for Bolet’s career, as not only did it receive excellent reviews, but the whole concert was recorded by RCA. Two years later he gave a similarly successful recital in London and this led to his signing a contract with Decca, recording for the company throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Bolet’s style of playing is often criticised for its lack of virtuosity and excitement. It rarely had that essential ingredient of communication, particularly on disc, and the reasons for this are many. He was not of the psychological make-up to flaunt his ego and he was an extremely sensitive man. Having been uprooted from his homeland at the age of twelve it is not surprising to learn that he formed a protective shell around himself, becoming reserved and shy: facets of his character that are apparent in his playing. His repertoire was based on the Romantics, predominantly Liszt and Chopin, and he delighted in performing ‘hyphenated’ works: Bach–Busoni, Kreisler–Rachmaninov, Strauss–Tausig, Wagner–Liszt, and anyone hyphenated with Godowsky. He also played major works of Brahms, Schumann, Debussy and Franck, as well as twentieth-century compositions by Joseph Marx, John La Montaine and Norman Dello Joio.
Bolet’s series of recordings for Decca covers around thirty compact discs. By the time he came to record for Decca he was already in his seventies, and his age, coupled with his dislike for the recording studio, resulted in a series of ultimately unsatisfying recordings. In many of the virtuoso works of Liszt, Bolet sounds tired and careful in his approach and he was really not up to the demands of works such as Liszt’s Grand Galop chromatique, something that needs to be tossed off in the fashion of György Cziffra. The Decca recordings should not be dismissed, however: they are just not representative of Bolet at his best. The most enjoyable of the Decca series is a disc of encores in which Bolet indulges in his favourite passion of Godowsky arrangements as well as some ‘straight’ Chopin and Mendelssohn, including some charming and beautifully crafted Chopin waltzes.
Bolet in the studio and Bolet in the concert hall could be like two different pianists. It was when he was in front of an audience that he could add that extra dimension of scintillation and excitement, taking risks and generating emotion and exhilaration in his listeners. Bolet always preferred a Bechstein piano for performance and recording (he also used a Baldwin), and the sound quality can be noticeably different from the usual Steinway, with a somewhat diluted tone and occasionally a harsh sound. Bolet’s most successful recordings are those of live performances: the Carnegie Hall recital from 1974 mentioned above and some Chopin and Liszt pieces from Alice Tully Hall in New York in 1972. As a pianist with a low profile Bolet recorded for many small record labels during the 1950s and 1960s, his first recordings being made for the Boston label in 1952. One of his favourite works was Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which he recorded for Remington in 1953 along with the four scherzos of Chopin. He recorded this concerto again in 1972 for the Genesis label, coupled with the same composer’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Also for Genesis he recorded the rarely-heard Piano Concerto in G minor Op. 15 by Giovanni Sgambati. One of his best studio recordings, made for Everest in 1960 and 1961, is of works by Liszt. The Sonata in B minor and Mephisto-Waltz No. 1 are given superb performances, as are the Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Hungarian Fantasy with the Symphony of the Air and Robert Irving; this is vintage Bolet at his best in the studio.
In 1970 Bolet recorded Liszt’s Études d’exécution transcendante in Barcelona. Although not satisfying as a whole, there is some excellent playing here, particularly in Chasse-neige. In the early 1970s Bolet recorded for RCA, and a disc of Rachmaninov transcriptions is the filler to the Carnegie Hall concert reissue on compact disc. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble-Bee shows that he had dexterity in abundance when he wanted to use it, and his use of the singing line in Kreisler’s Liebeslied is particularly well caught in the recording. A Liszt recital he recorded at the same time was not issued until its rediscovery in 2001. Some of the performances are on the careful side but there is an excellent recording of the Rhapsodie Espagnole, a work Bolet did not otherwise record commercially. An extra track has an interesting history: after one of the sessions for the Rachmaninov transcription disc, Bolet ran through Liszt’s arrangement of the overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Here again is Bolet unedited, and as such, giving a live performance. The tape machines were left running and the stunning performance was caught revealing Bolet in all his glory.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).