"I wanted to come face to face with a master: I recognised him as such." (Hélène Grimaud)
  1914-1990

The legendary Cuban American pianist Jorge Bolet

Click here to1914-1990  "I wanted to come face to face with a master: I recognised him as such." (Hélène Grimaud) 

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'.

 
Jorge may not have been the greatest pianist, but he was always my favourite pianist. 
(William Livingstone, critic)
 
Apart from your today unrivalled virtuosity, there is the rarest of poetic elegance in the true Romantic style that revived for me a tradition I thought had ended with my beloved master and friend Josef Hofmann. It lives again in your unique combination of demonic daring, elfin delicacy and soaring lyricism. 
(Abram Chasins, 5 February 1971)

 

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.

 

Jorge Bolet on Desert Island Discs, 2 March 1985 

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.

 

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 CrociataGregor BenkoMichael 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 some 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).

A complete discography of Bolet's recordings, compiled by Farhan Malik and Michael Glover, can be found by clicking on this link.

 
Big in Japan.   A selection of just Liszt CDs on a visit to the staggeringly huge Shibuya branch of Tower Records, Tokyo, April 2013.
Due September 2014.   "Sony Classical releases on 10 CDs of all those fabled, yet heretofore only sporadically accessible, recordings that the great Cuban-American pianist made for RCA, CBS and Spain’s Ensayo Records between 1959 and 1983. This first ever complete Sony collection also includes many tracks for the first time on CD, including Bolet’s debut on RCA, a Liszt programme from 1959. Many CDs have been remastered from the original analogue tapes for this release, packaged, as always, with original covers, labels and full discographical notes."

8 special recordings

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.

 
DECCA/ London 417 651-2. [Recorded in Walthamstow Assembly Hall, 9/1986.
A gondola ride on a sumptuous swell of sound, a performance full of subtleties.
 
From the delicious ripples of the opening page to the climax where a judicious extra octave in the base sets the seal,  this performance seems to me to reflect exactly the spiritual essence of the piece.   It is unhurried and properly expansive and the sound is glorious.
 
[both from Piano Works Vol. 6, Decca 410 803-2 CD: recorded in Kingsway Hall, London, 10/1983].   I think this is simply unforgettable.   Never fails to move me.
 
[Live in Carnegie Hall (25 February 1974)]
The third waltz section, about 2m57secs in, almost made me jump out of my seat when I first played it on LP.  So as not to wear the disc out, I taped it for repeated listening.

 

Kreisler/Rachmaninov, Liebesleid & Liebesfreud  

 
Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C# minor
Piano Works Vol. 1, Decca 410 257-2 CD, recorded in Kingsway Hall, London, 2&9/1982; piano: Bechstein].  The first piece I ever heard him play. 
 
Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30. London Symphony, Ivan Fischer.
[London 414 671-2, recorded in Kingsway Hall, London, 9/1982]
I do not find this a laboured performance at all, as some would have it.  The second subject of mvt. 1 haunted me for days afterwards on a trip to Greece as a student in 1983.
 
In his preface to this study the composer (modestly?) writes, "A most sensitive and sympathetic touch, extreme delicacy and refinement, independent and even fingers, a perfect legato, a poetic soul—all these requisites are indispensable to a proper rendering of this study."
 
Extra recording: his party-piece, Godowsky's waltzes on themes from Die Fledermaus, 1960, Germany.   [Sender Freies Berlin (SFB) (English: Radio Free Berlin) was the radio and TV service for West Berlin from 1 June 1954 until 1990 and for Berlin as a whole from German reunification until 30 April 2003.]
 
And an absolutely stunning, no-holds-barred performance of a Godowsky etude live in 1979.

'In person Jorge Bolet was an imposing presence. Mildly profane, with a sardonic sense of humor, 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.

Last updated 26 March, 2015.

These pages have been redeveloped and considerably extended from those of the original 2009 site, and a revised site begun Halloween, 31 October 2012.