Jorge Bolet, Vol. 2
Ambassador from the Golden Age:
A Connoisseur's Selection for the Bolet Centennial

56003-2 (6 CDs)  | $ 72.00


Jorge Bolet, Vol. 2
Arthur Rubinstein, during a visit to the Curtis Institute of Music in 1938, singled out just one young artist who was likely to achieve a major career, the twenty-four-year-old Cuban pianist Jorge Bolet, who already (like Rubinstein) had an inimitably beautiful piano tone. The confirmation of Rubinstein’s prediction, however, was to be many decades in coming. Bolet (arguably similar to Rubinstein) had a narrative power and visceral excitement when playing before an audience that he seldom achieved in the recording studio. To celebrate Bolet’s centennial, Marston presents this six-CD collection of concert performances, many of which are all new to the Bolet discography. Jorge Bolet was not the only pianist to have been called “the last romantic,” but he was the only one to have worn the appellation “an old-fashioned Romantic pianist” as a proud badge of honor. He frequently invoked the memories of the pantheon of pianists who were his inspiration—Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, Friedman, Rosenthal, Moiseiwitsch, Cortot, Gieseking, and Paderewski. He said simply, “I wanted to be one of them.”

Here is a collection to prove he achieved just that. Although more than seven hours of Bolet playing, the recordings contained on this set are carefully-selected to highlight Jorge Bolet at his spontaneous best. Included are a number of Godowsky compositions that Jorge never recorded commercially; two selections from the 1970 International Piano Library benefit concert; and several pieces that are unique to the Bolet discography such as the Bach Toccata, the Mozart Rondo, the Chasins Schwanda Fantasy, and the Vořišek Impromptu in E.

CD 1 (78:16)

Three Intermezzi, Op. 117
1.No. 1 in E-flat4:52
2.No. 2 in B-flat Minor4:42
3.No. 3 in C-sharp Minor5:15
 11 December 1983, Amsterdam 
Sonata No. 62 in E-flat, Hob. XVI/52
4.I Allegro Moderato6:51
5.II Adagio5:59
6.III Finale: Presto4:19
 22 February 1987, Amsterdam 
Fantasy in F-sharp Minor, Op. 28
7.I Con moto agitato6:02
8.II Allegro con moto2:46
9.III Presto4:59
 27 December 1981, San Francisco 
10.Variations sérieuses, Op. 5412:32
 27 October 1974, New York City 
Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2, “Tempest”
11.I Allegro6:14
12.II Adagio8:22
13.III Allegretto5:24
 7 April 1974, New York City 

CD 2 (79:50)

1.Fantasy in F Minor, Op. 4913:04
 7 April 1974, New York City 
2.Etude in E Minor, Op. 25, No. 53:40
 22 February 1987, Amsterdam 
3.Waltz in D-flat, Op. 64, No. 1, “Minute”2:00
 22 February 1987, Amsterdam 
4.Waltz in E Minor, Op. Post.3:06
 2 February 1984, New York City 
5.Nocturne in F-sharp Minor, Op. 48, No. 29:26
 12 March 1985, Philadelphia 
6.Réminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor, S. 3976:20
 3 October 1970, New York City 
7.Rigoletto: Concert paraphrase, S. 4347:05
 3 October 1970, New York City 
8.Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, S. 24410:41
 27 October 1974, New York City 
9.Venezia e Napoli: Gondoliera, S. 162, No. 15:06
 11 December 1983, Amsterdam 
10.Venezia e Napoli: Tarantella, S. 162, No. 39:34
 11 December 1983, Amsterdam 
11.Spinnerlied aus Der fliegende Holländer, S. 4405:14
 11 November 1971, New York City 
12.Widmung, S. 5663:50
 11 November 1971, New York City 

CD 3 (79:06)

1.Ballade No. 2 in B Minor, S. 17115:14
 3 November 1985, Minneapolis 
Prelude, Aria, and Finale
 26 May 1974, Arnhem, The Netherlands 
5.Ballade in G Minor, Op. 2419:46
 22 February 1987, Amsterdam 
6.Danseuses de Delphes (No. 1 from Préludes, Book I)3:41
7.La sérénade interrompue (No. 9 from Préludes, Book I)2:22
8.La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (No. 7 from Préludes, Book II)4:54
9.Feux d’artifice (No. 12 from Préludes, Book II)4:06
 7 April 1974, New York City 
10.Clair de lune (No. 3 from Suite Bergamasque)5:00
 1980 private recording; Baldwin LP BDW 701 

CD 4 (79:55)

1.Impromptu in E, Op. 7, No. 54:55
 8 March 1975, New York City 
2.Impromptu in G-flat, Op. 90 (D. 899), No. 37:14
 2 October 1988, Carmel, California 
3.Etude in A-flat, Op. 1, No. 23:14
 26 May 1974, Arnhem, The Netherlands 
4.Prelude in G-flat, Op. 23, No. 103:34
5.Prelude in F Minor, Op. 32, No. 61:25
6.Prelude in F, Op. 32, No. 72:32
7.Prelude in G-sharp Minor, Op. 32, No. 122:33
 6 January 1966, Berlin 
8.Variations on a theme of Chopin, Op. 2230:03
 11 December 1983, Amsterdam 
9.Polka de V.R.4:46
 23 February 1974, Amsterdam 
 15 March 1978, Philadelphia 
11.Prelude No. 14 in E-flat Minor, Op. 12, No. 22:18
 7 December 1987, Bonn 
12.Prelude No. 15 in B-flat Minor, Op. 12, No. 31:27
 7 December 1987, Bonn 
13.Invitation to the Dance, Op. 6511:47
 25 August 1980, Edinburgh 

CD 5 (79:56)

1.Minuet in A Minor (No. 3 from Renaissance)5:15
 18 January 1980, Atlanta 
2.Rosamunde: Ballet Music3:03
 11 December 1983, Amsterdam 
3.Moment Musical, Op. 94 (D. 780), No. 32:10
 14 February 1978, Philadelphia (Intimate gathering) 
4.Study No. 25 (after Op. 25, No. 1)3:42
 10 October 1976, Amsterdam 
5.Study No. 5 (after Op. 10, No. 3, for the left hand)6:14
 15 March 1979, Philadelphia 
6.Study No. 7 (after Op. 10, No. 5)1:57
 10 October 1976, Amsterdam 
7.Study No. 12 (after Op. 10, No. 5)2:09
8.Study No. 13 (after Op. 10, No. 6, for the left hand)4:22
 11 December 1983, Amsterdam 
9.Study No. 15 (after Op. 10, No. 7)4:30
10.Study No. 1 (after Op. 10, No. 1)2:16
 15 March 1979, Philadelphia 
11.Waltz in D-flat, Op. 64, No. 1, “Minute”2:30
 1965, Berlin 
12.Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes from Die Fledermaus10:09
 17 May 1973, Köln 
13.Ständchen, Op. 17, No. 23:05
 18 April 1980, New York City 
14.The Swan (from Carnival of the Animals)2:53
 26 May 1974, Arnhem, The Netherlands 
15.Adagietto (from L’Arlésienne, Suite No. 1)2:49
 22 February 1987, Amsterdam 
16.Tango in D, Op. 165, No. 23:58
 15 March 1979, Philadelphia 
17.Elegy (for the left hand)3:12
 19 July 1982, College Park, Maryland 
18.The Gardens of Buitenzorg (No. 8 from Java Suite)4:43
 28 November 1983, Milan 
19.The Salon (No. 21 from Triakontameron)3:00
 7 April 1974, New York City 
20.Caprice Espagnole, Op. 376:01
 16 March 1961, Köln 
21.La Jongleuse, Op. 52, No. 41:58
 26 May 1974, Arnhem, The Netherlands 

CD 6 (78:11)

1.Toccata in D, BWV 91211:03
 1944, location unknown; Lira Panamericana transcription disc 
2.Rondo in D, K. 4855:20
 1944, location unknown; Lira Panamericana transcription disc 
Sonata No. 26 in E-flat, Op. 81a, “Lebewohl”
3.I Das Lebewohl: Adagio—Allegro6:40
4.II Abwesenheit: Andante espressivo3:49
5.III Das Wiedersehen: Vivacissimamente3:58
 30 October 1939, Philadelphia 
6.Prelude in E-flat, Op. 23, No. 62:43
 20 October 1937, Philadelphia 
7.Schwanda Fantasy (after Weinberger)6:58
 1944, location unknown; Lira Panamericana transcription disc 
8.Réminiscences de Don Juan, S. 41818:43
 9 November 1975, New York City 
9.Tannhäuser: Overture, S. 44218:28
 16 April 1989, New York City 


Producers: Francis Crociata and Ward Marston

Audio Conservation: Ward Marston

Audio Assistance: J. Richard Harris and Raymond J. Edwards

Booklet notes: Francis Crociata and Ira Levin

Booklet Design: Takeshi Takahashi

Marston would like to thank Frank Bell, Gregor Benko, Max Brown, Douglas Cairns, Dr. Richard Carlson, Dr. Luca Chierici, Frank Cooper, Raymond Edwards, André Gauthier, Michael Glover, Daniel Greenhouse, Hans Heynis, Dr. Christian Johansson, Ira Levin, Donald Manildi, Joe Patrych, Jon Samuels, Jonathan Summers, Mattheus Smits, and Peter Ziegler.

Produced in association with Houston A. Cummings, administrator of the Bolet Estate.

This Bolet edition is dedicated to the memory of Mac T. Finlay with gratitude for his kindness and support over many years.

Marston would like to extend special thanks to Richard Childers, Peter Greenleaf, the International Piano Archives at Maryland, and Donald Manildi whose major sponsorship gifts made the production of Jorge Bolet Vol. 2 a reality.

Marston would also like to thank the following individuals for their generous contributions to Jorge Bolet Vol. 2: Thomas Baugh; Gregor Benko; R. J. Campbell; Francis and Anna Crociata; William DesChamps; Raymond Edwards; Curtis Givan; Mark Gustafson; Ira Levin; David McMillan; Sheldon Nadler; Peter J. Rabinowitz; Joseph Simunac; Timothy J. Snider; and Lawrence E. Yungk

A Great Artist in Search of His Context

“He played in his own way, and eventually the world caught up.”

Harold C. Schonberg,
New York Times, Obituary of Jorge Bolet,
21 October 1990


Posterity smiles on Jorge Bolet for his centenary. For the first time, the majority of his commercial recordings are readily available in handsome CD boxed sets. Why then do we believe that this set is indispensable as a supplement, in order to form an appraisal of Bolet’s place in the history of piano performance? Composed mainly of recital performances and broadcasts, our collection certainly extends the scope of the repertory covered in the Bolet discography. But there is a more important reason to present these performances: each is a deeply-committed, emotionally-fraught interpretation, while most of Bolet’s studio recordings, though beautiful-sounding, were far too carefully executed, lacking that vital and important something found in his best live performances.

The problem with Bolet’s studio recordings is precisely the perfection, something frankly acknowledged in the insightful essay the Decca label commissioned from Jeremy Siepmann for one of their Bolet reissues: “As a performer, he was never really happy without an audience … Bolet in the studio … was less apt to exude the often enthralling spontaneity that characterized many of his concert performances. In the studio, he was a master jeweler. In concert, he was a master storyteller—and when it suited the music, an ebullient entertainer.”

The Sony/BMG label also commissioned an equally acute essay from Mr. Siepmann for its set of Bolet’s Ensayo and RCA recordings. But there Siepmann left unsaid the most important and unfortunate aspect of Bolet’s RCA experience—its abrupt end, suddenly quashed when he was at the height of his powers and playing as wonderfully as he ever could. Perhaps the most colossal example of Jorge’s fabled bad luck was the replacement at RCA of R. Peter Munves, the man who had brought Bolet to the label, by Thomas Z. Shepard, who promptly canceled the contract that would have seen Bolet record eight more solo discs and his complete concerto repertory.

The reasons his recordings present an incomplete and often distorted impression are much the same reasons Bolet’s career was so uneven and so late in coming to fruition, reasons to be found in his personal life, ineffective management, and outright bad luck. Jorge knew he was not at his best in the recording studio and asked, in exasperation, in 1980 at the onset of his relationship with Decca, why couldn’t they simply record his concerts, as companies did for Vladimir Horowitz and Shura Cherkassky. Why, indeed? Apart from inadequate management and bad luck, the quixotic nature of his career stems mostly from the very individual way in which he approached the piano and its literature. Bolet emerged concurrent with the disappearance of the context in which his pianistic and musical approach could best be understood and appreciated. That process had started in the early 1940s with the death of Rachmaninoff and retirement of Hofmann, just as Bolet’s career was beginning.

Jorge Bolet was born on 15 November 1914 in Havana into genteel poverty, the fifth of six children of a disabled Cuban Army veteran and his once upper-middle class bride. In their reduced circumstances, Jorge’s mother, and to varying degrees her children including Jorge, became evangelical Presbyterians. And he was born to music. “I was born to play the piano. I heard the piano played and played well by my sister Maria, who was very talented, on the day I was born and every day thereafter. That is all I have ever really aspired to do.” Maria, a decade his senior, was his first teacher and guided him through his pre-teen prodigy years as a minor celebrity in Havana’s cultural milieu. He was attentive to concert artists performing in Cuba. The first major figure to have made a lasting impression was Wilhelm Backhaus. For the remainder of his life, for all of the sturm und drang of his roller-coaster career, and his emergence into adulthood with his deeply felt, albeit very private spiritual life intact, and his basically shy, introspective personality, Jorge Bolet’s story really is, first, last, and always, his passion to connect with his audience, as often and for as long as he had the strength to play, and they the attention to listen.

His professional life began in 1926 when two wealthy sisters from Erie, Pennsylvania arranged for twelve-year-old Jorge’s audition for the recently founded Curtis Institute of Music. He was accepted and accompanied to Philadelphia by Maria as his guardian, and assigned by Curtis Director Josef Hofmann to the studio of David Saperton, the son-in-law of Leopold Godowsky. Though Saperton provided the technical framework for Bolet’s formation (and Jorge always acknowledged the debt his playing owed to his teacher) at least equally important was his regular attendance at concerts and recitals in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music and New York’s Carnegie Hall, with tickets provided by Curtis. In virtually every Bolet interview, when inevitably asked to explain (or defend) his unapologetically old-fashioned approach, Jorge would enumerate his pantheon, the pianists whose playing most impressed him and influenced his own playing, and usually in this precise order: “Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, Friedman, Moiseiwitsch, Rosenthal, Paderewski, Cortot, Gieseking, Backhaus.” To those names, invoked as a litany, he added simply, “I wanted to be one of them.”

From the beginning, Jorge was marked down as one of the elect, confirmed by his selection at age sixteen to play a movement of the first Tchaikovsky concerto under Fritz Reiner in the initial Curtis Institute showcase concert at Carnegie Hall in 1931. From the piano bench, Jorge could look directly into the Director’s box and the faces of Josef Hofmann and his invited guests: Rachmaninoff, Rosenthal, Godowsky, Alexander Siloti, and a new star on the pianistic horizon, the recently-arrived Vladimir Horowitz.

Though his student was a quick study and little daunted by technical challenges, David Saperton wasn’t the teacher to allow Jorge any opportunity to indulge his admitted laziness and aversion to practice—so his trajectory continued upward and stayed that way until graduation. In 1938 Arthur Rubinstein visited the Curtis Institute. The institute’s founder, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, described the visit in a chatty letter to Josef Hofmann: before playing a recital at the school, Rubinstein had asked to hear “… some of our piano youngsters … He was obviously astonished, liked Bolet best and predicts a real career for him.”

“Youngster” was stretching a point. Bolet was twenty-four and a graduate, and had won Curtis’s Hofmann award that year. In fact, thanks to a Cuban benefactor, he had already a full European tour to his credit, including his “official” debut, a December 1935 recital in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. However, all concerned would have been astonished to know how many decades of waiting lay ahead before the blossoming of the “real career” that Rubinstein foretold. It is still cause for wonder that Bolet tenaciously clung to the periphery of the concert world, alternately waiting for his moment or threatening to give up and make his hobby, photography, his profession. The better portion of forty years lay ahead, a seemingly never-ending crucible in which Bolet through some mysterious alchemy evolved his inimitably pellucid sound, his unique “touch” that grew both larger and more intimate, and in the opinion of Bolet connoisseurs, more beautiful. It was so beautiful, in fact, that most of us regarded it a privilege to hear him even on the all-too-frequent occasions where he was not at his best.

Listening to the earliest recordings in this collection, one couldn’t claim that the Bolet sound was yet discernable, although the piano tone is that of an artist who is extremely conscious of the sound he is producing. The talent Arthur Rubinstein remarked upon is unmistakable. So is a kinship bordering on imitation with the two artists he revered, Rachmaninoff and Hofmann. I find this especially evident in Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in E-flat and Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” Sonata. In those early days Bolet played the Steinway, probably accounting, at least in part, for the superficial resemblance to Rachmaninoff’s and Hofmann’s piano sounds, as well as the contrast between his tone then and the 1970s and 1980s. In his years of prominence, he played the Baldwin and, for a time, Bechsteins, first out of financial necessity and then, over time, out of a combination of loyalty and his conviction that they were the best pianos to achieve his particular aims.

The early recordings also predate another significant part of Bolet’s pianistic formation, one rarely alluded to, but to which Jorge attached great significance. That was a series of master lessons he took sometime in the mid-1950s with the composer/pianist/author Abram Chasins, who was Hofmann’s student and acolyte. Chasins had withdrawn from his own pianistic career to become music director of the New York radio station WQXR. Following those lessons, it was Chasins who secured Bolet one of his first big breaks, the engagement to play the piano for the soundtrack of the Columbia Pictures feature film about Franz Liszt, Song Without End that starred Dirk Bogarde.

By the 1950s, the boom-bust pattern of Bolet’s career was becoming apparent. Contemporaries and near-contemporaries like Kapell, Istomin, Katchen, Janis, Pennario, Graffman, List, and Cliburn all had ongoing recording contracts and more lucrative (or at least steadier) concert incomes. By contrast, Bolet was at one moment proclaimed the only real rival of Horowitz (a comparison which did not serve to his advantage) while the next moment he was just another Community Concerts trouper who winds up teaching in a small college and waiting for his pension. Acquiring a reputation for his ironman constitution, as well as the abundance of his open dates, throughout his career many of his concerts were last-minute substitutions. Bolet probably holds the record as a “pinch hitter” for indisposed pianists, among them Horowitz, Cherkassky, Cliburn, Arrau (many times), Pollini, Gould, Haskil, and others. These stressful last-minute affairs seemed to bring out his best. Perhaps it was the adrenalin, or perhaps the conviction that if only the fates were kinder, he could have had a career comparable to that of his indisposed colleague.

Bolet’s first national fame resulted from a substitution of an unusual sort, luck he made for himself on 11 January 1944. The New York Times reported, “Jorge Bolet made an unexpected debut at Constitution Hall in Washington when the train bringing Sigmund Romberg and his orchestra had not arrived. It was announced that Dorothy Sandlin would sing if someone in the audience would accompany her. A young Cuban army man was persuaded to go up to the platform. When he started to play Chopin’s B-flat minor Scherzo after the singing, the audience realized at once that this was no amateur.” Charles Van Devander’s nationally syndicated Washington Memo added “with sure touch and supreme artistry he dashed off Chopin’s F-sharp major Nocturne and A-flat Polonaise followed by Alec Wilder’s ‘Neurotic Goldfish.’ The applause was tremendous.” Three months later, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her syndicated column “My Day” “…I went to a concert at the Pan-American Building ... The young pianist from Cuba, Lt. Jorge Bolet played, and I enjoyed again his great artistic gift.” Presumably the First Lady had previously heard Jorge, then the assistant military attaché at the Cuban embassy, either at the Constitution Hall concert or at a previous Pan-American Union event. We believe the recordings of the Bach Toccata, Mozart Rondo, and Chasins Schwanda Fantasy were made in conjunction with one of those Pan American Union occasions.

Jorge enjoyed only a few months of his newly-won fame, playing occasional concerts for the U.S. War Department. But in October the Cuban government of Fulgencio Batista was voted out of office; Jorge was out of a job and out of the Cuban Army. He became in his words, “a newly inducted rank private” in the U.S. Army. As the war ended in August 1945, Jorge received a lieutenant’s commission and became cultural attaché in General MacArthur’s American occupation forces in Tokyo. Again he attracted national publicity, this time by conducting the first performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado in Japan. Discharged in 1947, he was signed by Columbia Artists, and one of his first major engagements was as substitute for Horowitz in a pair of Rachmaninoff Third Concertos performances with the Pittsburgh Symphony. (After ecstatic reviews reached New York, Horowitz recovered sufficiently to play the Sunday matinee.) Other substitutions turned into similarly mixed blessings. For example, when appearing in place of Clara Haskil in the Beethoven Fourth Concerto with Leonard Bernstein, a former colleague of Jorge’s from Fritz Reiner’s conducting class at Curtis, and himself in his first season as music director of the New York Philharmonic, the triumphal occasion was soured by an ill-timed insulting remark to Bernstein by someone in Bolet’s party. But he had only himself to blame when, engaged as a substitute for Claudio Arrau in Cleveland, his customary diplomatic tact deserted him at the worst possible moment by calling attention to a wrong note in George Szell’s score of the Liszt Second Concerto, this in front of his Cleveland Orchestra players. It pretty much assured any re-engagement for Bolet there would be secured only after the notoriously thin-skinned maestro’s demise.

There were bright spots in the 1950s, such as enduring relationships with the National, Boston, and Cincinnati Symphonies. He played with Washington’s orchestra in eight of twelve seasons between 1950 and 1963. The audience demonstration following his playing of the Prokofiev Second Concerto in Cincinnati under Thor Johnson was so prolonged, the Enquirer ran its review on the front page and the orchestra found resources to partner with an enterprising small label, Remington, to produce the 1953 recording that remains widely praised. That recording so impressed the Viennese conductor Josef Krips that he engaged Bolet for the Prokofiev with three of his orchestras (Buffalo, London, and San Francisco.) Elsewhere in this booklet, his former student Ira Levin writes of the recording reaching Emil Gilels in the Soviet Union. Serge Koussevitzky died before he could fulfill a promise to accompany Bolet, also in the Prokofiev Second, but the Boston Symphony honored the promise, and subsequently engaged him with Monteux, Munch, Leinsdorf, and Steinberg, on twelve separate occasions in all. Erich Leinsdorf, known to dislike soloists, was so devoted a fan that he engaged Bolet for each of his six seasons as Boston’s music director, and with a host of the orchestras he later guest conducted. But the Bolet “black cloud” also haunted the pianist where conductors were concerned, for four of the most celebrated—Furtwangler, Rodzinsky, Mitropoulos, and the aforesaid Koussevitzky—all died before fulfilling promised engagements.

The film Song Without End, released in 1960, gave Bolet’s career a bit of momentum, a few recordings to keep his name before the public and (perhaps more importantly) over the air, as recordings displaced live concerts as the staple of American classical music broadcasts. In 1958, anticipating the film’s release, RCA had recorded Bolet in a single LP with nine of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. Once again luck of the wrong kind intervened. It is unaccountably a monaural recording, although well into the stereo era, so it and his RCA relationship quickly evaporated. The opportunistic and technologically innovative Everest label issued his first stereo recordings—two Liszt LPs to slipstream behind the publicity for the Liszt movie, plus a Chopin album, prompted by Bolet’s having played a recital in Warsaw on a restored piano once owned by Chopin. His Everest recordings were respectfully received, but into the mid-1960s, the label’s gradual down-pricing marketing strategy reinforced the prevailing stereotype that Jorge Bolet was an artist of the second rank.

He recalled the 1950s as years of desperation and financial hardship. The 1960s were less desperate, but every bit as discouraging. Greater visibility attending on the film and recordings accounts for some of this, plus the first genuine interest in Bolet on the European continent and in the United Kingdom, particularly by the national radio corporations and their orchestras. He scored a huge triumph with the Vienna Philharmonic, when a scheduled pair of performances of a Liszt concerto conducted by Paul Kletzki was extended for three more concerts. His London recital debut at Royal Festival Hall in 1962 was an unqualified triumph, though it unaccountably did not lead to his return until another decade had passed. His letter to his manager at Columbia Artists was a mixture of triumph and desperation: “I hope these [reviews] please you! I know they will. I really can’t do any better. Everyone here is extremely happy and I believe things will really start happening for me in Europe. Maybe the U.S. will discover me over here one of these days!” Once again, a brief flurry of activity, a handful of prestigious dates, mostly as last-minute substitute, but ominously, still no recording contract.

Then it all fell into place, so quickly and so unexpectedly, that almost a decade more passed before he fully realized he was now living the life to which he had aspired for so long. The cliché “success has many fathers but failure is an orphan” is apparent in Bolet’s rise to real eminence. Some of Bolet’s partisans in the United Kingdom understandably attribute his late worldwide fame to his securing a Decca recording contract in 1982, a relationship which ultimately produced twenty-five releases. Most, even in Britain, acknowledge the crucial importance of RCA’s issue of a complete 1974 Carnegie Hall recital on two LPs, the only commercial recordings with which Bolet himself was satisfied. But as important as those recordings were, I believe the respect Bolet started to achieve and the large popular following he soon acquired occurred because of a breach finally opening in the iron curtain of score-worship and the canon of “approved” masterpieces.

This musical straightjacket had been partially ushered into the world by the marketing of conductor Arturo Toscanini and the concurrent rise of the fashion of so-called historically authentic performances, and the breach occasioned in the 1960s by what was known as the Romantic Revival. Three individuals were decisive in that revival: the New York Times critic and author Harold C. Schonberg; musician and musicologist Frank Cooper, who founded the Butler University Romantic Music Festival; and Gregor Benko, a friend and ally of both Schonberg and Cooper, who co-founded and was the principal force behind what is now known as the International Piano Archives at the University of Maryland. Jorge Bolet expressed his gratitude for and to Schonberg, Cooper, and Benko to his dying day.

Benko was the producer of the reissues of the recordings of the pianists of Bolet’s pantheon, especially Hofmann, and was co-producer of the RCA’s centennial edition of the complete recordings of Rachmaninoff. Cooper engaged Bolet to perform (and usually to learn) obscure Romantic repertory for his Romantic Festival. Many of the concerts were broadcast on public radio resulting in other orchestras and performing arts organizations becoming interested in the repertory and consequently in Jorge. Schonberg, who published the most widely read and respected book on pianists, had elucidated in reviews and Sunday pieces for over a decade, just what was special about the pianists of “The Golden Age” and why, among modern pianists, the playing of Jorge Bolet had most in common with them.

Schonberg had always written respectfully (though not always admiringly) of Bolet’s playing since the late 1940s. Before 1970, he often made a superficial comparison with the prevailing paradigm of Romantic era pianism, Vladimir Horowitz. It was an easy comparison to draw, both pianists producing huge, sometimes overpowering sounds and each with an astonishing technique. But as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, it appeared no one took the point, certainly not decision makers in the music business. Schonberg seemed to have given up and gave Bolet barely a mention in his book The Great Pianists, a lapse he would correct in the revised edition.

Then, on the evening of 3 October 1970, the International Piano Library provided Jorge Bolet with the right context in which to be heard and understood. The event was a multi-pianist benefit concert in New York City, with headliners Alicia de Larrocha, Guiomar Novaes, and soprano Beverly Sills, and a number of lesser-known pianists including Jesus Maria Sanroma, Bruce Hungerford, Earl Wild, Raymond Lewenthal, Rosalyn Tureck, Gunnar Johansen, Fernando Valenti, and Ivan Davis. And, as an afterthought, Bolet, for Benko had never heard him play and barely heard of him.

A not irrelevant sidelight: responding to invitations from IPL president Mme De Larrocha to participate, Claudio Arrau, Arthur Rubinstein, and Rudolf Serkin sent respectful greetings, but notably not Vladimir Horowitz. In the Horowitz archives at Yale, one finds that a secretary (or his wife Wanda?) had written on the invitation “VH does not approve” and in unpublished, recorded interviews Horowitz deprecated the whole lot of Golden Age pianists, with the grudging exception of his sometimes patron Rachmaninoff.

Jorge Bolet, on the other hand, had purchased the Piano Library’s Hofmann recordings as soon as each was issued. He recognized the concert as the chance of his lifetime to be heard in the right context and he made the most of it. Bolet’s revelatory contributions to that evening can be heard on CD two of this collection, previously available only on a limited edition set of LPs. Harold Schonberg used appropriate comparisons to explain Bolet’s playing to his readers. His New York Times review signaled a change in the way Jorge Bolet would be written about all over the world: “… A great deal of exciting playing was thrown out. Dare one say who made the best impression? Pin me to the wall and I will nominate Mr. Bolet for his absolutely transcendent performance of a pair of Liszt operatic paraphrases (‘Lucia’ and ‘Rigoletto’) …” Schonberg’s review was not only his own critical opinion, but mirrored the audience’s consensus, starting with Benko and Mme De Larrocha.

Bolet, at age fifty-five, was launched. The good luck just kept coming, starting with an RCA recording contract, but there followed an even more improbable stroke of luck delivered by the mercurial modernist French composer Pierre Boulez, newly appointed to the podium of the New York Philharmonic. For his first season, he decided to devote special attention to two composers, Anton Webern and, surprisingly, Franz Liszt. Bolet performed with the New York Philharmonic more often than any other piano soloist during Boulez’s five-year tenure.

The final two decades of Bolet’s life, leaving aside illness and a few bumps in the road pertaining to commercial recording, would be good years. From then to the end Jorge had all he ever really wanted: an audience of his own … which brings us to Bolet’s recordings and the reason this particular collection is so important.

When I think about Jorge’s playing, I frequently draw upon the observations he offered in interviews, especially advice to students in master classes, the maxims and impressions he conveyed with conviction and consistency:

“Be faithful to the music,” which he regarded as much more than the mere written or printed score, although he agreed with Rudolf Serkin (who had briefly been his post-graduate teacher and was later his predecessor as head of the Curtis piano department) that a thorough knowledge and understanding of the composer’s score must be the foundation. He insisted on this in his students and in himself as uncompromisingly as did any of those whom Bolet called “the Urtext crowd.” The improvisational freedom for which Bolet’s interpretations were either extolled or abhorred rested finally on the score’s content, and as much of the historical context of its composition as he could acquire. Once that became a part of what he called his musical mainstream, the job of conceiving his interpretation would occur from the trial and error of performing the work over years and even decades, to acquire an intimacy with a composition that perhaps even its composer did not have.

“Sing at the piano and use everything, the piano, the acoustic and atmosphere of the room, and control of fingers and musculature to make as beautiful and unforced a tone as possible, no matter how large the dynamic. And put the colors to the service of interpretation—as important a communicative instrument as tempo and dynamics.”

“Project.” Jorge was adamant in wanting to deliver the sound he produced to every last person, no matter how large or how acoustically challenging the environment. The very first time I heard that sound in person was during an orchestral rehearsal in Chrysler Hall, Norfolk, Virginia, which at the time shared the appearance and, unfortunately, the acoustical deficits of the original Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center. I was seated in the last row under the mezzanine, the deadest corner of the hall. I will never forget the sound of the piano’s first entrance, immense and intimate at the same time. When I mentioned this to Jorge afterwards, he answered “Whoever sits in that seat paid his pennies and deserves to hear me as clearly as the people sitting in the boxes.”

Melody: “Nobody ever paid a nickel to hear an Alberti bass!” he said many times over. For the heart of his repertory, even in the complex embroideries of Prokofiev, Godowsky, and Debussy, architecture was the underpinning of the music, but subordinate to the melodic line. Few, if any among modern pianists, sang out a melodic line like Jorge Bolet.

What I never heard Bolet mention were the most important factors of all: the emotions, the philosophical and spiritual values, and the narrative power that occasionally elevated his playing and engaged listeners’ imaginations. Possibly he didn’t know how to put these into words, but it does suggest why he so seldom achieved in the studio what he could before an audience. And, even then, why so many who heard him, especially in the 1980s don’t recall anything special in the experience. As Gregor Benko expressed it in a letter to the Gramophone magazine: “He was not always at his peak form—in fact, I would judge that he exhibited his deepest and most transcendental playing only occasionally—perhaps a smaller percentage of time than any other artist.” In the same letter, he observed: “Bolet’s progress is of particular interest to aficionados of recordings, because he was perhaps the first great pianist whose career coincided with the era of widespread taping of concerts by amateurs.”

That this set is even possible is due in large part to Bolet himself, who never forbade collectors to record his concerts, and actively encouraged them to share their recordings of his performances. Perhaps he knew better than anyone when he was offering “his deepest and most transcendental playing” and on those “lightning in a bottle” occasions there was at least a chance that his best might be captured and remembered.

A few words about the varying sound quality of the selections in this volume: the earliest recordings, dating from the 1930s and 1940s, derive from transcription disc sources varying both in quality and state of preservation. We believe, however, that the opportunity to hear Bolet in some of his earliest preserved recordings outweighs the compromised sound quality. Likewise, we have decided to include a few in-house recordings from the 1970s and 1980s because of their surpassing interest, despite their inferior sound. These were made with Bolet’s permission by his personal friends. Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy is one such recording. The astonishing contrast of this performance with Jorge’s later commercial recording, critically praised as it was, better explains than any words why we believe this edition to be indispensable in considering Bolet’s artistry. We are also offering Jorge’s final New York performance of Liszt’s transcription of the Wagner Tannhäuser Overture, captured only as an audience recording with somewhat distant sound. So, why include this performance when the marvelous 1974 Carnegie Hall Tannhäuser is in superior sound? Though it may sound fanciful, there was to us, sitting in the audience that night in 1989, something heroic about this performance, and in fact, about that entire evening.

It was during his 1987 New York season that we noticed his weight loss and increasing instances of inconsistent and/or uninvolved playing. That gorgeous Bolet sound was still there, but the ecstasy, poetry, and seemingly inexhaustible reserves of strength and power often gave way to introspection and caution. Interrupting another hundred-plus concert season to have minor surgery performed by his lifelong friend, Dr. Richard Carlson, it fell to Dr. Carlson to tell Bolet on 7 December 1988, the results of the HIV test required by the State of California whenever an invasive surgery is performed. Jorge was silent for a long moment and then looked at his friend directly and asked one question: “What do I need to do to stay active for as long as possible?”

For several months there was no question of resuming his tour, but in the spring he did return to his full schedule, recitals in the U.S. and Europe, solo recordings of two Chopin sonatas, a group of nocturnes, and the two concertos with his old friend Charles Dutoit in Montreal, this last a particular source of stress. He had performed the Chopin E-Minor Concerto many times over two decades, but had never gotten around to learning the F-Minor. Now he had committed not only to record it, but to play it in a half a dozen concerts. Given those circumstances, it is astonishing the Chopin F-Minor Concerto recording came off surprisingly well, but the Chopin sonatas and nocturnes, and two Liszt concertos (with Georg Solti and the London Philharmonic) were not released. Bolet’s New York recital had been postponed once and there were rumors from Europe of embarrassing recitals, including one in which he retired with a halting apology, unable to return after intermission. Nevertheless on 16 April 1989, I was standing outside the hall with a host of longtime Bolet fans—all of us more apprehensive than expectant. Then Jorge, looking dreadfully gaunt and pale, walked by in the center of a group toward the stage door. The descriptions left by Harold Schonberg and Abram Chasins of the pathetic final recitals of Josef Hofmann and Moriz Rosenthal came irresistibly to mind. (“A frightened lonely man being sadistically pushed out on stage.”) With the knowledge of hindsight, I know it was Jorge pushing himself. Twenty minutes later there he was, not the shrunken, dying man we’d seen on the street, but the former Jorge, the hero of the keyboard. Schonberg’s successor at the New York Times, Donal Henahan, captured what we experienced perfectly. “It has always been a special pleasure to hear Jorge Bolet play the piano. The tall, ambassadorial-looking virtuoso’s technique is so brilliant and his control over it so complete that one could always attend his recitals in full confidence of being thrilled by a genuine master of the art of pianism.”

No allowances for age or illness were needed, as you will hear. Bill Livingston, editor of Stereo Review, was sitting a row behind me, as the house rose in a huge ovation. He tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Jorge isn’t just a hero, he’s become a legend.” Bolet died on 16 October 1990. If what Jorge meant by wanting to join that pantheon of Romantic heroes who had inspired him as a youth was that he aspired to become a legend, he had succeeded. He was “one of them.” Here is the proof.

© Francis Crociata, 2014

Francis Crociata was a co-producer and author of the principal essay for “The Complete Rachmaninoff” issued by RCA records for the 1973 Rachmaninoff Centennial. He has written and lectured extensively on Rachmaninoff and the American composer Leo Sowerby. He is president of the Leo Sowerby Foundation and serves on the advancement staff of Saint Leo University in Florida.

Jorge Bolet:
A Personal View

In 1976 I auditioned for Jorge Bolet at Indiana University, in awe of the master whose recent recordings had so impressed me. He requested that I begin with a Chopin etude and when I finished playing the first Godowsky version of Opus 10, No. 5 he was beaming. He practically ran to the second piano and proceeded to play a number of the Chopin-Godowsky etudes for me. I had already heard Horowitz, Richter, Arrau and many other great pianists in concert, not to mention hundreds of historical recordings, but none surpassed, and few even equaled what I heard at that audition—it was sheer pianistic sorcery! I learned that, in person, he was often so much greater than most of his recordings, and when his Godowsky recording came out, although it was beautiful and all of the mastery was there, it had little of the drive, the poetry and, yes, the sorcery I had witnessed first hand! I thought of the stories about Godowsky himself, considered by Rachmaninoff and Hofmann to be the greatest of the great, but only for friends in his studio. Apparently a mere handful of his recordings give an idea of that greatness.

In 1977 Bolet brought me to the Curtis Institute, where I worked with him a further seven years, during which time I also became his teaching assistant. I remember him after lessons asking if I would hear him play works such as Reger’s Telemann variations and Rachmaninoff’s Chopin variations. The same thing happened, for he played with a transcendental freedom and mastery of all pianistic and musical aspects of the works. Some of this was lost when he performed them in public a few days later, and much more lost when the recordings came out, beautiful, but not close to what I had been privileged to hear. I also sat in on his recording session in London for Liszt’s Suisse during which he cursed the microphone many times, and played things much safer than I was accustomed to hearing from him. He really seems to have been his happiest and freest when playing for a small number of appreciative listeners; this was confirmed for me by many who knew him longer and better.

I feel that his true greatness can be heard on the “live” recordings presented by Marston, as well as his 1953 Prokofiev Second Concerto recording, the RCA recordings from the 1970s, some pirate recordings also from the 1970s, and some of the later Liszt recordings, especially the Schubert-Liszt album, which is simply ravishing. By the time he made his later Decca discs he was a bit tired and would complain to me that now that he was an old man, he was playing the more than 100 concerts a year that he should have been playing when he was forty!

His playing became more and more introverted, a bit like the later Gilels, with whom he had a memorable encounter: I was with Jorge Bolet at a Gilels recital in 1982 in London, after recording a master class on the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto with Bolet for BBC. He had never heard Gilels in concert before and told me “That was the best piano playing I have heard in twenty-five years.” We went backstage and he introduced himself to Gilels, who said “Bolet?! I love you! Your Prokofiev 2nd [the 1953 recording] is THE best.” The two giants, one huge, the other small, then hugged … a wonderful moment.

Bolet had coached with Leopold Godowsky and remembered lunch at Godowsky’s after a lesson, when the other guests were Einstein and Heifetz! One year he had lessons with Moriz Rosenthal in Vienna, which he described to me: “‘What would you like to play?’ ‘The Appasionata, sir.’ After that, ‘Fine, what else?’ ‘The four ballades,’ and after those: ‘Fine, what else?’ ‘The Liszt Sonata.’ After that he finally came to me, went to the piano and, the great Liszt pupil said ‘You know, Liszt was not much of a composer, I mean, what kind of melody is this?!’ as he proceeded to hammer out the glorious D major second theme melody with his THUMB!”

When I asked Bolet why he never played Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 111 he said: “It was impossible for me after hearing Hofmann play that in the early ’30s. I knew I would never be able to approach such a performance, unbelievable in every way.” When asked who he thought was the greatest pianist, he said: “Hofmann was unique and inimitable, but after hearing Rachmaninoff I always thought, that’s the way I want to play. You could hear Hofmann play the same work four times in close succession and each performance was different; he was quicksilver, whereas with Rachmaninoff there was a consistency of approach from one performance to the next, like with the Chopin Second Sonata.” He told me: “The greatest performance of the Chopin preludes, ever, was Cortot’s, both live, and on records.” And: “One of my most vivid memories is of Backhaus playing the most incredible Chopin Etude Opus 10, No. 2 in Havana in the 1920s. I never heard anything like it since.” When I played Backhaus’s 1927 recording for him, he said “I told you so.”

He also said that the most incredible thing he ever heard coming out of an orchestra was Respighi’s performance of Respighi’s Feste Romane with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1941. After I played him the recording made shortly after the concert he said “Just as I remembered, but imagine that live in a hall—unbelievable!”

I must add that Bolet’s knowledge of the repertory from Bach to the moderns was complete. He was playing late Schubert sonatas in Carnegie Hall in the early 1940s, long before most other non-German pianists ventured to offer those masterpieces in public, and he gave many premieres of modern works as well; he was by no means just a romantic pianist, but rather a truly universal musician who had studied conducting under Reiner and knew the orchestral, chamber and operatic repertory thoroughly.

Bolet had very strong memories of Rachmaninoff’s great conducting of his own “The Bells” in Philadelphia. And, perhaps most important of all, Bolet was present for the very first reading of the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody with Rachmaninoff and Stokowski, during which Rachmaninoff made several changes of dynamics, tempos and even a couple of pitches from the score, none of which were ever printed, but which he showed me in his copy. His comment: “So much for Urtexts!” This had strongly colored his ideas about the veracity of Urtexts. Bartok and Stravinsky did the same when performing their own music, and there are, we know, accounts of Chopin and Liszt (and other composers) playing differently from their printed scores.

© Ira Levin, 2011

Ira Levin, born in Chicago, is the Principal Guest Conductor of the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, after leading positions at major opera houses in Germany and Brazil. He maintains a career as virtuoso pianist, and his CD playing his own transcriptions for solo piano of orchestral and other works on the Lindoro label became an instant cult classic among piano aficionados when it was released in 2007. He has conducted more than 1,000 performances around the world of over sixty operas plus hundreds of concerts. He has recorded works of American composer Michael Colina with the London Symphony and Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and his orchestrations of Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica, Franck’s Piano Quintet, Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue on Bach, and five works by Rachmaninoff are published by Edition Tilli and are being increasingly performed.