|CD 1 (78:27)|
|1.||Andante Spianato e Grande Polonaise in E-flat, op. 22||13:22|
|Bloomington, Indiana; 11 August 1971|
|2.||Barcarolle in F-sharp, op. 60||9:50|
|New York; 7 April 1974|
|3.||Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat, op. 29||3:47|
|4.||Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat, op. 51||5:25|
|Berlin; 21 February 1963|
|5.||Impromptu No. 4 in C-sharp minor, op. 66, “Fantaisie”||4:57|
|Berlin; 21 February 1963|
New York; 28 January 1973
|6.||No. 1 in B minor, op. 20||9:21|
|7.||No. 2 in B-flat minor, op. 31||10:21|
|8.||No. 3 in C-sharp minor, op. 39||7:35|
|9.||No. 4 in E, op. 54||11:53|
|10.||Waltz No. 6 in D-flat, op. 64, no. 1, “Minute”||1:52|
|De Bilt, The Netherlands; 1978|
|CD 2 (75:20)|
|1.||Polonaise No. 1 in C-sharp minor, op. 26, no.1||7:26|
|New York; 9 November 1975|
|2.||Polonaise No. 2 in E-flat minor, op. 26, no. 2||7:58|
|New York; 9 November 1975|
|3.||Nocturne No. 3 in B, op. 9, no. 3||7:43|
|4.||Nocturne No. 5 in F-sharp, op. 15, no. 2||3:58|
|5.||Nocturne No. 8 in D-flat, op. 27, no. 2||6:38|
|6.||Nocturne No. 15 in F minor, op. 55, no. 1||5:39|
|New York; 7 April 1974|
|Sonata No. 3 in B minor, op. 58|
Minneapolis, Minnesota; 3 November 1985
|8.||II.Scherzo – Molto Vivace||2:31|
|10.||IV.Presto, ma non tanto||5:45|
|11.||Chant Polonaise, op. 74, no. 12, “My Joys” (Liszt Transcription)||4:13|
|New York; 9 November 1975|
|12.||Waltz No. 14 in E minor, op. posth||2:47|
|De Bilt, The Netherlands; 1978|
Producers: Gregor Benko and Ward Marston
Audio Conservation: Ward Marston
Photographs: Gregor Benko and Kathleen Sabogal
Booklet Design: Takeshi Takahashi
Marston would like to thank Arcadio Cancio, Conchita Betancourt Cancio, Frank Cooper, Francis Crociata, Mac Finley, Daniel Greenhouse, Hans Heynis, Donald Manildi, Farhan Malik, Kathleen Sabogal, Mattheus Smits, and Peter Ziegler.
Produced in association with Mac T. Finley and Houston A. Cummings, administrators of the Bolet Estate.
This CD is dedicated to the memory of Bolet’s beloved friend, Dr. Teresa Escandon.
An Appreciation of Jorge Bolet
“[Bolet] the greatest pianist in the Western hemisphere.”
Emil Gilels, 1988.
Listening to the performances brought together on this disc, one must feel grateful for the fact that they were actually recorded, for they illuminate the many interpretive facets and musical mastery of my friend Jorge Bolet. Culled from recitals in the United States and Europe, the program includes works that he never recorded commercially, thus filling a gap in his discography and documenting the way he played them. I think this piano legend and supreme interpreter of Chopin would have been very pleased with the choice of composer, for Jorge liked to say of himself, “I am Chopinesque,” referring not only to his love of Chopin’s music but also to his affinity with its formality, elegance, and fantasy.
How do I recall the man behind these performances? Let me sketch him for you. Bolet was tall and physically imposing. Moody, self-effacing, reticent, intense, deeply serious, he lived in a world of thoughts, which he kept mostly to himself. He would rather talk about the latest car models than about music. Jorge had absolutely no personal affectations, certainly none at the piano, and loathed them in others. He had a horror of sycophants and was bored by musical circles. He was sensuous, but not frivolous. He liked to emphasize that he was a “born pianist” to clearly distinguish himself from those who must toil hour after hour in order to make even the smallest progress at the keyboard.
Some pianists like to console themselves of their shortcomings by saying that the perfect piano hand—the one that can play every difficulty found in the piano literature—does not exist. Bolet proved them wrong. Nothing was too difficult for him. He could play the most demanding and complex passages with absolutely no previous warming-up or preparation. The independence of his left hand had no equal. He taught that each hand had to be viewed—and developed—separately. His left hand never overpowered the right one and remained completely independent even in the most complex contrapuntal passages. Octaves—any and every kind one can think of—were nothing to him. When he “threw” them in fast bravura scales, his hands became a blur. Jorge’s playing was always polyphonic, never linear—every piece was richly voiced. Looking at his hands one knew instinctively that any playing coming from them had to be powerful. They were massive and fleshy (“all flesh and no bones”) and enabled him to produce the golden, organ-like legato sound for which he was renowned. His fingers had the most extraordinary pliancy. To see from up close how Jorge coaxed sound out of the piano by almost imperceptibly kneading the keys with his thick fingers while using the weight of his hand to depress them was instructive. The syncopated pedal—that is, pedaling immediately after the note is struck, not before—formed the basis of every note he played. He was a perfectionist. Once, during an RCA recording session in which Jorge kept repeating a take of Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Bach’s “Preludio” from the violin Partita No.3, in E, a tired Jack Pfeiffer (who produced Bolet’s RCA recordings) turned to me and said, “Few pianists could play these notes and those who could would need to study them for a lifetime before they could master the piece. Please tell Jorge to stop. We are happy with it and so is Mr. Rachmaninoff!”
Jorge rarely offered opinions about others, even when asked, and was unfailingly kind, even if he felt otherwise. When, and if, he criticized others, it was to the point and without malice. He was remarkably self-assured. He knew his worth—he was cognizant of the uniqueness of his hand, of his musical genius, and of the fortuitous circumstances of his musical formation.
During the first decades of its existence (founded in October 1924), Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music had few equals. Money, discernment, and prestige (and world events) made Curtis a magnet for some of the greatest musicians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet, when one thinks of Curtis, one might think only of its brilliant piano department, headed by Josef Hofmann (who later became director of the institution). But every department was led by a world-renowned musician and offered instruction of the highest quality. Through Hofmann a nucleus of brilliant Russian and Polish émigrés came to teach at Curtis. The legendary Leopold Auer (teacher of Heifetz, Milstein, Elman, and Zimbalist), formerly of the Imperial Conservatory of Music at Saint Petersburg, led the string department. Marcella Sembrich (considered the greatest coloratura soprano of her day) taught voice. Pianist Isabelle Vengerova had studied under Leschetizky and Anna Essipof and had also taught piano at the Saint Petersburg conservatory. Hofmann himself had been the only private pupil of Anton Rubinstein, founder of the Saint Petersburg conservatory and considered to be the father of the Russian (correctly known as the Saint Petersburg) school of piano playing.
Thus, the Curtis Institute came to enshrine and disseminate the very best of Russian musical traditions directly through these faculty members. This connection to their homeland was not lost on Soviet musicians behind the Iron Curtain. Pianists Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels idolized Bolet and saw him (not Horowitz) as the great modern link to their glorious pianistic pre-Revolutionary tradition. Richter considered Bolet’s recording of Prokofieff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, in G minor (first recorded by Bolet in 1953, the year of the composer’s death), a paragon of execution. Few know that Bolet resurrected this concerto and gave it its second “premiere” in New Orleans in 1949. According to Boosey and Hawkes (publisher of the score), the concerto had not been played in 20 years; Prokofieff himself had last played it.
At Curtis, Bolet was at once recognized for his extraordinary digital abilities. The immediate question became, “Who should teach him?” It was decided that Bolet would study not with Hofmann or Vengerova but with David Saperton, pianist and pedagogue extraordinaire and son-in-law of Leopold Godowsky. Saperton’s kinship to Godowsky would prove decisive in Bolet’s pianistic and musical development, not only because of Godowsky’s influence on Saperton concerning piano technique and musical outlook, but also because of the direct, personal access to Godowsky himself (and his brilliant New York salon) that the son-in-law relationship offered the young pianist. When asked about his coming to Curtis and the various possible teachers that he could have had there, Jorge invariably answered, “For me, there could have been no other but Saperton. He was the only person at Curtis who could have developed my hand and technique,” punctiliously emphasizing the “me” in the statement so as not to appear that he was slighting other pedagogues in the piano department.
Eventually, as an advanced student, he studied Godowsky’s own compositions with the master himself. Jorge’s scores of these pieces bore Godowsky’s markings in red crayon—the daunting “Passacaglia,” based on themes from Schubert’s “Unfinished” symphony; the “Fledermaus” and “Kunsterleben” symphonic metamorphoses; the “Java Suite”; the Sonata in E minor; pieces from the “Triakontameron.” Jorge wrote in the foreword to Jeremy Nicholas’s biography of Godowsky (Godowsky—the Pianists’ Pianist, 1989): “Having studied a great many of Godowsky’s major works personally with the master, they have become an integral part of my musical personality and repertoire.”
Bolet had a prodigious capacity to memorize new works and to practice them mentally and challenged himself by learning, in a few days, works that could barely (if at all) be played by others. The effort involved was nothing to him. These might be works that he was planning to play only a few times. Among these, I recall John LaMontaine’s Piano Concerto, op. 9 (an atonal work); Abram Chasins’s “Schwanda” Fantasy; Joseph Marx’s monumental “Romantic Piano Concerto” in E major; and numerous pieces by Godowsky.
When I think of Bolet and Chopin I think of the B minor sonata and the Scherzi. He programmed the sonata in his Curtis graduation recital (in 1934) and played it regularly thereafter. He recorded it, shortly before his death, at his final recording session for Decca, in California, in 1989 (together with the B-flat minor sonata). These recordings have not been issued, so we are fortunate to have this performance. This is Bolet the grand seigneur at the piano. It is impossible not to be impressed by the sheer grandeur of the conception and by his control of structure. As early as 1942, he was programming all four Scherzi in a Carnegie Hall recital. He nearly always played them as a set (as he did the Ballades) and chose them for one of his first long-playing records—for the Remington label, issued in 1953. With the exception of the popular Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, op. 31, he did not record any of them again commercially, so the present set is especially welcome. The Scherzi were the perfect vehicle for his daredevildry and bravura style of playing.
The selection of smaller pieces offers a tantalizing spread of Bolet’s keyboard artistry. The nocturnes were featured in nearly every recital as encores, usually immediately following the last piece on the program. I recall Bolet telling his close friend Alicia de Larrocha how much pleasure it would give him to devote a good part of a program to nothing but Chopin nocturnes. Here we have four that were dear to him. Nocturne op. 9, no. 3, in B major, he never recorded commercially. The others he did, often more than once. Nocturne op. 55, no. 1, in F minor, is a somber, dirge-like piece that Bolet transforms into a small-scale drama of perfect proportions. The playing in the Impromptu No. 4 in C-sharp minor, op. 66, “Fantaisie,” is astonishing even by Bolet’s standards. Listen to the clarity, speed, and evenness of the whirling notes as they are strung in great arches of sound! The Polonaises he played as opening pieces to a recital or as encores. Both waltzes he recorded commercially, but it would be difficult to imagine a more headlong (or more finished) performance of the Waltz op. 64, no. 1, in D-flat (“Minute” Waltz) than the one presented here. If there ever were a real dog that could wag its tail this fast and gracefully, it would deserve, indeed, to be remembered for posterity by a waltz by Chopin. We also have a Chopin song as arranged by Liszt as the odd piece on the program. The Chant Polonaise, op. 74, no.12, “My Joys” was, for many years, a standard Bolet encore. It is a joyful melding of two of his musical heroes in one wistful piece and is played with the expected panache and sensitivity.
© 2004 Albert McGrigor, © 2004
Albert McGrigor is a publisher, journalist, writer, editor, scientist, and musician who studied conducting with Igor Markevitch. As a child, he met Jorge Bolet, the beginning of a lifelong friendship and, later, collaboration. He fondly recalls accompanying Bolet on concert tours throughout the United States, with Bolet and his personal manager, Tex Compton, sharing the driving of a Lincoln Continental and with a Baldwin grand piano in tow.
A Note from the Producers
Jorge Bolet was born in Cuba in 1914. A prodigy, he was accepted at the age of twelve at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music where he became a star pupil of David Saperton, and often played for Josef Hofmann and Leopold Godowsky. After graduation in 1934, Bolet became the first and only recipient of Curtis’s Josef Hofmann Award in 1940. He studied briefly with Moriz Rosenthal in Europe, but told friends the lessons were useless. Later, intense coaching sessions with Hofmann’s pupil Abram Chasins produced tangible results, and Bolet always acknowledged Chasins’s influence on his playing. Starting in his youth, Bolet’s constant attendance at the concerts of Rachmaninoff, Hofmann, Gieseking and other great pianists of the day helped develop his remarkable gifts, filling his ears with the many varied and beautiful piano tones to be heard then on the concert stage.
A large man with a huge resonant voice, Bolet not surprisingly developed a particularly huge sound at the piano, especially beautiful and luscious even at the highest volume levels. Poetic by nature, he seemed reserved and patrician to most who met him casually, and perhaps only those who knew him well were aware that he was highly-strung and nervous. For many reasons that are impossible to pinpoint with certainty, he was largely “overlooked” in that day’s pantheon of great pianists, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that the entire world began to laud him as such. Bolet secured an important recording contract in 1977 with British Decca and made thirty-three albums for that label. Sadly, many of these are not representative of his best playing, for he not only was intimidated by the recording studio, but his final illness and decline often produced performances that were perhaps too passionless, slow, and thoughtful. The recording of Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz,” for instance, is philosophical rather than dashing.
Bolet at the top of his form was astonishing. His playing was imbued with poetry and feeling, mated with sovereign technique, authentic romantic style, and a unique sensual touch. He was the last of the “big” pianists, titans with tremendous sounds and huge grasps of the instrument who were also poets and thinkers, and whose delicate playing could make one swoon —- a la Anton Rubinstein. But Bolet’s playing wasn’t always at that level and, like Hofmann, he often played concerts when not in the mood. Luckily many of his recitals and concerts were recorded and in retrospect one can choose the very best. Here we present a selection of Chopin performances given between 1963 and 1987 that showcase Bolet at the top of his musical, artistic and technical form. Some selections like the Scherzi he performed often, while he almost never played some others, such as the Impromptus. We have chosen what we believe to be recordings representative of Bolet’s best, even though some such as the Polonaises and the Chopin-Liszt “My Joys” were made by amateurs with concealed tape recorders in the audience. At first hearing some might be put off by the relaxed tempi in the Third Sonata. Earlier performances have perhaps more tension and are more “mainstream,” but in this 1985 performance Bolet used his unique tone to produce a ravishing conception filled with poetry, the summation of a lifetime of thought about the work. The audience was obviously mesmerized.
Since the material for this compendium has been drawn from a variety of sources, the listener may notice some unusual juxtapositions. Jorge Bolet is here presented playing four different makes of pianos (Baldwin, Steinway, Bechstein, and Hamburg Steinway) in varying states of regulation and tuning. While most of these recordings are culled from public concerts, the third and fourth Impromptus originate from a radio studio recital without audience. Acoustic environments range therefore from intimate to cavernous and recordings made from the audience especially exhibit an increased degree of tape hiss. We have not subjected these recordings to any digital de-noising process so as not to compromise the striking beauty of Bolet’s conceptions.