Born in Havana in 1914, Jorge Bolet studied at the Curtis Institute, Philadelphia from the age of 12, then had a long career that only really brought him wide and lasting international fame from the early 1970s. He specialised in the great Romantic composers, above all Liszt, but he also adored the rare and hidden gems of the repertoire - and the more outrageous the technical demands, so much the better. Yet he was never one to show off merely for its own sake; he was, above all, a musician who cast an almost numinous light on the great 19th century classics he so loved. This biographical site is a contribution to the memory of this incomparable artist, 'an ambassador from the age of nocturnes and nightingales'.
He used to remark that he would have had a better career if he had been called Boletovsky or Boletinsky! "He was a perfect gentleman, sweet and affectionate, 'una persona dulce, tierno e dulce'."
(Teresa Escandon, pianist)
"I had seen pictures of him when he was just starting out. His Rudolph Valentino physique heralded an intensely seductive relationship with the world, with a touch of chic like the fruit atop the frosty triangles of glasses holding exotic cocktails: blue lagoons and green ti' punches... I wanted to come face to face with a master: I recognised him as such."
(Hélène Grimaud, pianist)
"He achieves (in my untutored opinion) the crucial balance between rippling and thundering virtuosity and a mastery of the sonority and complex harmonies of that great genius [Liszt] , but never at the expense of finding the melodic core of the works. I cannot imagine living without him. Not a week goes by without my giving myself the pleasure of a visit to his unique sound world." (Stephen Fry, British actor 2015)
JB in St. John's Smith Square, London 1987 in Kreisler/Rachmaninov. He is on superb form, clearly energised by the audience, and I have loved this performance ever since I first heard it on the radio that summer.
Desert Island Discs is one of the longest-running radio programmes in the world. It holds the record for the longest-running factual programme in the history of radio. Originally devised and presented by Roy Plomley, each week a guest ("castaway") is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury item for their imaginary stay on the island, while discussing their lives and the reasons for their choices. The programme's theme is "By the Sleepy Lagoon" composed by Eric Coates in 1930.
I have also been enjoying recently the Schumann-Liszt transcription of the song Widmung. The performance seems to reflect to perfection JB's soulful, songful genius.
Or listen to the spun sugar that he whirls around the quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto in Liszt's great paraphrase, recorded in 1974. A stunning performance of the same from December 1970. "His tremendous bravura and massive sonority are wonderfully complemented by his delicate tonal shadings and refined nuances - proof positive that virtuoso works are not antithetical to musical, attentive interpretation." [The Piano Files]
I am very grateful to the following people for help:
Christopher Daly, Villanova University, PA, for friendship and for lively discussions about pianists over many years. Alex Newton & James Hunter for helping me set up a website. Lesbia Orta Varona, Cuban Heritage Collection, Coral Gables, Florida. Frank Bell (Atlanta, Georgia). Monica Pasquale, great-niece of JB, David & Jorge Sierra-Bolet, Samuel Bolet, his nephews. Houston A. ['Tex'] Cummings, Donald Manildi, (International Piano Archive, Univ of Maryland, College Park), The British Library, The Free Library of Philadelphia. Susannah Thurlow, (Archivist, Curtis Institute, Philadelphia). Larry Yungk, Francisco Renno, Francis Crociata, Gregor Benko, Michael Glover.
The 100th anniversary of Bolet's birth was marked in December 2014 by the issue of 6 CDs by Marston Records (Pennsylvania). The recordings consist of much rare material, including material not in Bolet's discography. More information on MARSTON. This is the most important development in this pianist's legacy for some considerable time. Includes: Rigoletto paraphrase (3 October 1970, NYC), Chopin-Godowsky etudes (1976 Amsterdam, 1979 Philadelphia), Godowsky Gardens of Buitenzorg (1983, Milan), Weinberger-Chasins, Schwanda the Bagpiper (1944), Strauss II-Godowsky, Fledermaus (1973, Cologne), Mozart-Liszt, Don Juan (1975), and one of the final performances he gave of the Tannhauser overture, (16 April 1989, New York City). Gramophone July 2015 describes the set thus: 'Bolet emerges in performances which are like the blaze of Valhalla'. Jed Distler says on his website that we have here 'the pianist at his unfettered peak...[mesmerising] 'audiences with his poetic, imaginative and vividly communicative virtuosity'.
Here is a list of some of my favourite performances. This can be used as an introduction to JB's playing if you want to know where to start. They are in no special order.
Kreisler/Rachmaninov, Liebesleid & Liebesfreud
'In person Jorge Bolet was an imposing presence. He once was described by Clavier magazine as "having swallowed deeply the spirit of Franz Liszt (and) rejoined mortals as an ambassador from the age of nocturnes and nightingales." Burt A. Folkart, Los Angeles Times, October 1990.
28 February, 2018, United Kingdom.
These pages have been redeveloped and considerably extended from those of the original 2009 site, and a revised site begun Halloween, 31 October 2012.