"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) 

1950s & the Cuban Revolution

Lean years

Despite the glamour of much of what follows, Bolet has described some tough times in the late 1940s/50s, years when he was grateful for many friends who supported him in these ‘ghastly lean years’.    The promise of his golden years at Curtis was now being tested.  These were ‘terrible years... great struggle...half-starvation’.   New York Times 28.1.73

 

Bolet often returned to Cuba during these years.   There were recitals for Pro-Arte Musical, or as soloist with the Filarmonica under Erich Kleiber, Rodzinski, his compatriot José Echaniz, the British conductor Eric Simon and his brother Alberto.      Paquito D'Rivera, My Sax Life: A Memoir (2008) talks of his father who ‘opened a modest importing business that sold  instruments, books, and musical accessories.   It was located on Virtudes 57 between Consulado and Prado, in the heart of Havana, that marvelous city immortalized by Guillermo Cabrera Infante in his novel, Tres Tristes Tigres and destroyed shortly after by Dr. Castro, inch by inch.   Among the many friends and clients who visited this small enterprise were musicians such as Cachao, Arturo “Chico” O’Farrill, Bebo Valdés, Chocolate Armenteros, Mario Bauzá, René Touzet, Peruchín, Gilberto Valdés, Jorge Bolet, José “Chombo” Silva and Ernesto Lecuona.’

Serge Koussevitzky

In an interview with Elyse Mach in 1988 JB ruminated about Serge Koussevitzky (a legendary conductor, born in Vyshny Volochyok (Russia) in 1874, and a powerful force in the world of American music until his death in Boston on 4 June 1951) and the element of luck in a pianist’s career.   Koussevitzky had taken the young William Kapell under his wing and this made the pianist's career.   For Claudia Cassidy of the Chicago Tribune, JB ruefully observesd,  "Kapell could do no wrong".    Cassidy was extremely influential in the windy city but her judgment could be considered controversial.    She was unfailingly critical of the great Czech conductor Rafael Kubelík and described Janáček's orchestral work Taras Bulba as ‘trash’.

 

Bolet then went on to tell of an incident which can be dated to the year 1950.   He flew from NYC to Havana en route to Caracas to visit his mother and sisters.   The  Havana Philharmonic performed on Sunday mornings.   Arriving on Saturday, Koussevitzky conducted the Sunday morning concert.   JB was a guest of the President of the Board, Dr. Coro and his wife Margot, who were lifelong friends.   Lunch was at a  country house outside Havana and Bolet played for the conductor.   The piano was not in very good condition -   ‘Pianos don’t last in the tropics.’   After the Haydn F minor  variations, Koussevitzky was impressed and exclaimed, ‘Such polish!’ 

He made a date at Tanglewood – the summer home of the Boston Symphony in Lennox, Massachusetts -  for Bolet to perform Prokofiev’s second concerto, on 4th August.     (It was in 1936 that Koussevitzky led the orchestra's first concerts in the Berkshires; he and the players took up annual summer residence at Tanglewood a year later. Koussevitzky passionately shared Major Higginson's dream of "a good honest school for musicians," and in 1940 that dream was realized with the founding of the Berkshire Music Center (now called the Tanglewood Music Center).

Koussevitzky had conducted the second concerto for the composer himself in 1926.  But the Bolet’s contract was cancelled because the orchestra  had engaged Italian conductor Victor de Sabata on that day.   And the next year Koussevitzky was  dead.

 

Tanglewood could be quite rural.  In April 1953, Ross Parmenter reported that at a Bolet concert in Lennox with Monteux and the Boston SO, there was a ‘feathered intruder’.   A bird had got into the fan-shaped shed.  The concert was good ‘but did not have much colour or warmth’ in the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto.  There was drizzle in the late afternoon and the grounds were damp.

   

At this time, Bolet's agents from 1950 onwards were Mertens, Parmelee & Brown, Columbia  Artists Management, 113 W.57th Street, NY.   His address in 1951 was 71, Washington Square, New York City 10012, an apartment he shared with his partner and business manager Tex Compton.     In the 1840s, New York City's elite established Washington Square, far from the increasingly commercial environment of Lower Manhattan, as the address of choice.  The row of Greek Revival town houses on either side of Fifth Avenue presented the unified and dignified appearance of privilege.   The houses on the square came to represent the gentility of a bygone age.    Henry James, whose grandmother lived at 18 Washington Square North, depicted this nostalgic view in his 1880 tragicomedic novel, Washington Square.    Today, most of the buildings belong to New York University.

 

David Sierra-Bolet, JB's nephew, reminisces: ‘He always kept in touch and visited my parents (his sister Hortensia) every time he gave a concert in Miami or Fort Lauderdale and that was almost every year in the 1970s. My older brother Joel stayed with him in New York City (Washington Square) many times in the 1950s.   My brother Jorge and I stayed with him for a couple of days during my Christmas vacation, December 1962.    That was a great experience, he lived in Palo Alto, up on the mountain side.    I would lay on the floor next to the piano while he practice for hours (I was seventeen years old at the time).   On another occasion, in 1968 or 1969 I stayed with him in Bloomington, Indiana, where he was a piano teacher at the University of Indiana.   At that visit he gave me the key to his car and hooked me up with a student who hooked me up with a very pretty, sexy, not too shy, Mid-Western girl.   He was always, or rather often, in touch with his mother Adelina and all of his siblings (Maria, Antonio, Alberto, Hortensia and Guillermo).   His sister Maria (known as Pepa) lived for many years in Spain, and Tangier, where she was exiled by Franco.    During that time tio (Uncle) Jorge saw her and I would guess help her.   He had a vacation villa in San Sebastian.’

1950

The Las Cruces Sun (27 February 1955) gives information about Bolet’s career.  ‘Averaging some 70 recitals a season,  Bolet's schedule is indicative of the high place he has won for himself in the music world.   He made his first appearance in the Hollywood Bowl in 1953 and a return engagement with the Boston Symphony, Pierre Monteux conducting, at Tanglewood, which was accorded a great ovation.’

February 1, 1950  was the 75th birthday of violinist Fritz Kreisler.  Pope Pius XII and President Truman send messages.  There was a dinner at the Ritz Carlton hotel in new York City with a three-tiered cake and 75 candles.   Bolet played piano selections, ‘pinch-hitting’ for Claudio Arrau who was unable to make plane connections to get to the dinner on time.  (NYT 2/2/50).

Bolet was the soloist in the [Washington]  National Symphony Orchestra’s first performance of Rachmaninov Concerto No. 3 in D minor, with Howard Mitchell conducting, on February 15, 1950.

On 18 June 1950 there was a concert for the 150th birthday of the city of Washington, DC.  Cuba sent Bolet as one of their representatives.


July 

BOLET’S DEBUT SHATTERS QUIET OF LAKE FRONT July 16, 1950, Chicago Tribune.

Claudia Cassidy, the harpy of the newspaper, writes: ‘Jorge Bolet, the Cuban pianist, could have been charged with assault and battery of Tschaikowsky’s B Flat Minor Concerto last night, with a footnote on circumstantial evidence and extenuating circumstances.

For Mr. Bolet, who happens to be the only pianist I know with a small black mustache, was making his Chicago debut in the lake front bandshell with Nicolai Malko and the Grant Park Symphony orchestra, and he may not have been fully aware of the catastrophic results of the Grant Park habit of thrusting two microphones into the protesting throat of the piano. So fortified, he made a terrific clatter, and an audience estimated at 16,000 responded with some whoops of glee.

You might as well play a xylophone as a piano so maltreated. Not having heard Mr. Bolet in more legitimate circumstances, I can only tell you that he has a muscular attack, that he plays fast and loud, sometimes with a glittering facility, sometimes with batches of blurs and blotches, and that he gave no evidence of musicianship at all. [...] His Tschaikowsky made me doubt that I ever heard a flashier or cheaper performance of a badgered war horse.


Of the music critic, William Grimes writes in her obituary (1996): ‘Ms. Cassidy was born in Shawneetown, Illinois, on the Ohio River, where she saw her first theatrical performances on showboats. In 1942 she was hired by The Chicago Tribune as its theater, music and ballet critic, and her "On the Aisle" column soon became a Chicago institution.

‘Ms. Cassidy wrote an energetic, often florid prose, and she took no prisoners. Sometimes referred to as "acidy Cassidy," she hounded the conductors Desire Defauw, Rafael Kubelik and Jean Martinon off the podium of the Chicago Symphony and out of town. Some artists left the city vowing never to return.’



A recital on Friday, 3 November in Fort Worth included Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes (one of the big works which Bolet never recorded) and Weinberger/Chasins’ Schwanda the bagpiper polka.    In a review by George Anson, he is described as ‘definitely one of the few real piano masters of today.   The audience was highly enthusiastic but much too small.   Such piano mastery rates a packed house.’    In a  performance on 12 November of Cesar Franck’s Symphonic Variations with the Tulsa Philharmonic, Bolet dispalyed ‘almost every facet of the pianist’s art’.   (Tulsa Daily World)

1951

There were concerts in Cuba on 4/5 February 1951 with the Havana Philharmonic. 

The New York Times for 5 March 1951 reports his first appearance with the New York Philharmonic in what was rapidly becoming one of his his signature concertos, Prokofiev 2 under Dimitri Mitropoulos (Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka was also on the programme).   ‘It was a rugged massive example of piano playing in which the concerto gave Señor Bolet a workout.   He gave the piano a workout...’

Order of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes

From this time there is a very detailed article in the Mifflinburg Telegraph (Pennsylvania), 15 March 1951, which is very rich in background information.  It is centred around Bolet presenting a ‘brilliant concert’ in the Davis Gymnasium, Lewsiburg at 8.15pm.   The programme included Norman Dello Joio’s  Sonata No. 3 and Abram Chasins’ raucous Schwanda the Bagpiper fantasy.   ‘Up until now I have been called a Cuban pianist and rightfully so but at present that appendage is a bit outdated, for I am an American citizen and proud of it!’     JB had recently been awarded Cuba’s highest distinction, the Order of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes.

The Order was instituted on 18 April 1926 and awarded to recognise especial merit and service to the Republic of Cuba.   It was named after Carlos Manuel de Céspedes del Castillo (1819-1874), a Cuban planter who freed his slaves and made the declaration of Cuban independence in 1868 which started the Ten Years' War.   Céspedes was born into a prominent plantation family who had been granted their Cuban estate in 1517.    By 1868 Céspedes was made chief of the revolutionary movement in the Oriente region, and on October 10, 1868, at the head of only 147 poorly armed men, he proclaimed independence for Cuba in the Grito de Yara (“Cry of Yara”).   

The slaves were emancipated by a new constitution adopted in April 1869, the same month that Céspedes was elected president by the revolutionary government.   Spanish troops poured into Cuba, and the earlier victories were followed by defeats and retreats.   Céspedes was forced into hiding; he was finally discovered and shot by Spanish soldiers, and his body was buried in a common grave. In 1910 his remains were exhumed and placed in the National Pantheon of Heroes of the Cuban Revolution in Havana. His son, Carlos Manuel Céspedes Quesada, was briefly president of Cuba in 1933.

Carnegie Hall, April 1951

There was an important recital on 3 April 1951 in Carnegie Hall.    Bolet was not to perform in the city for the next five years.

H. Taubman (in the Times the next day) declared that JB commanded one of the most formidable techniques in the business.   He played the Tempest Sonata Op31/2 of Beethoven and Schumann’s Concerto without orchestra Op. 14 etc.   ‘In spite of all the gifts of virtuosity, Mr Bolet did not provide the musical satisfactions that should come from a pianist of his attainments.  There were deficiencies in imagination and sensitivity.  For no reason, he lingered over some passages, made rhythmic alterations...’    The concert was also reviewed in other papers.   On 14 April 1951 Douglas Watt in the New Yorker:  "Bolet, a tall, strongly built, well groomed man played a long and taxing program.  He displayed a sound technique but for some reason his playing lacked excitement.   There was a sameness about his approach to the various works that made it doubly wearisome.  I was most curious about a quality of tone he repeatedly produced; it was the kind of dead tone that I usually associate with piano recordings.  I don't know how, or why, he produced it.’ 

On 29 July there was a summer concert with the  Chautauqua SO under Franco Autori.   Brahms Concerto No. 2 was Bolet’s big piece and the programme also included Frederick Picket’s Variations on a theme ‘Go down Moses’.     The Chautauqua Institution was a 750-acre educational centre beside Chautauqua Lake in south-western New York State. 

Chicago Tribune Dec 7, 1951 reports that Miss Frances Hooper will host a dinner ‘tonight in her Evanston home for Jorge Bolet, Cuban pianist’.

Airs of Spain, 1952

At some time during 1952 Bolet recorded some Spanish and Latin-Americal music for Boston Records.   The disc included music by de Falla, Albeniz and selections of Cuban composer Lecuona -    ...Y la Negra Bailaba! and Danza de los Nañigos from his Danzas afro-cubanos.   The first  Lecuona piece is, to my mind, a little 'wooden' and not particularly 'Caribbean' in feel.

 

Ernesto Lecuona y Casado was born in Guanabacoa, Cuba on Cereria Street (today Estrada Palma).   Although his birth certificate and Cuban passport have 6th August 1895 for his date of birth, Lecuona always celebrated it as 7th August 1896.   He had graduated from the Conservatorio Nacional Hubert de Blanck (one of JB’s early mentors) in Havana with a gold medal at the age of seventeen.

He was a guest of Amelia Solberg de Hoskinson – one of Bolet’s important early patrons -   when a cat on a nearby platform began miaowing at him and the table guests incessantly disturbing everyone.  Not to lose the moment, Lecuona later that evening improvised a danza at the piano, imitating the event.   It is full of puttering cat walks, miaowing and mischievous cat paw gestures.    (Bolet did not record this!)   In September 1925 at the request of Lecuona, a foundation called Antiguos Alumnos de Blanck was created.   It was initially chaired by Amelia Solberg de Hoskinson and held its inaugural concert on 24 March 1926 at the Sala Espadero.

There was a second disc for Boston Records which included Camille Saint-Saëns, Etude en forme de valse, Op. 52, No. 6.  (These recordings are now available on the APR label.)   Francis Crociata has offered some speculation about the Boston recordings.   ‘The Boston label was the inspiration of James Stagliano, the Boston Symphony's principal horn in the early 1950s.   He founded the label mainly to record solo and ensemble instrumental performances by himself and his BSO colleagues, but branched out to record underrepresented soloists like Jorge who happened to have several successful BSO engagements from 1951-1954  - he didn't have an exclusive contract with his first label, Don Gabor's Remington.’     In a High Fidelity advert of January 1954, Boston Records give as their address Symphony Chambers, 246 Huntington Avenue, Boston.

'Two Horowitzes and four Rubinsteins rolled into one.'

On Thursday 6 March, 1952 he gave a recital that was reviewed by the Omak Chronicle, Wisconsin, under the heading ‘Jorge Bolet presents difficult pieces... some of the most difficult ever written.’   At the close of the concert he told his audience: ‘You are a wonderful audience and this is a wonderful, majestic, beautiful country.’   He received baskets of flowers, a boutonniere which the Nelson Florist Shop presented to him and a box of beautifully gift-wrapped Okanogan apples from the local high school girls.   In the Schwanda fantasy ‘he ripped through it like two Horowitzes and four Rubinsteins rolled into one.’

 In Ann Arbor, Michigan on4 May 1952 he performed for the University Musical Society.

This was Beethoven’s sublime fourth piano concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Thor Johnson, the conductor on the Prokofiev recording.   Jorge was always very willing to replace artists.    Here it is the First Lady of Brazilian pianists, Guiomar Novaes, who was indisposed.    It was a big programme with Walton’s gargantuan Belshazzar’s Feast (surprisingly) in the first half.

The Beethoven concerto was quite a feature of Bolet’s early years.   This concerto was premiered in March 1807 at a private concert of the home of Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz.   (The Coriolan Overture and the Fourth Symphony were premiered in that same concert.)   However, the public premiere was not until 22 December 1808 in Vienna at the Theater an der Wien. Beethoven again took the stage as soloist.    The Lobkowicz family (Lobkovicové in modern Czech, sg. z Lobkovic; Lobkowitz in German) dated back to the 14th century and was one of the oldest Bohemian noble families.   The first Lobkowiczs were mentioned as members of the gentry of north-eastern Bohemia.

A fabled Prokofiev recording is made, 1953

Bolet had been on tour in South America.   A  passenger manifest shows that he arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico on 7 February 1953 on a Pan Am World Airways flight 204 Maiquetia/Caracas, Venezuela.

 

In the spring of 1953 he had a concert at the Hollywood Bowl which was described by Aurelio de la Vega as ‘a climax, one of Bolet’s biggest triumphs’.

He gave the first Los Angeles Philharmonic performance of the Prokofiev concerto on  August 11, 1953, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting.

 

In April 1953, Bolet finally recorded Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op. 16 with the Cincinnati SO under Thor Johnson.   The whole concerto can now be heard on NAXOS Classical Archives website or on CD from APR.   Peter Wadland – producer of Bolet’s DECCA/London recordings and the mastermind behind getting him into the studio in the later years of his career - writing in Gramophone, January 1991 observed that this was ‘the first recording of this work and one held in awe by every student in the USSR.’    The recording was released in December 1954.   It was taped in Cincinnati's Music Hall, supervised by Laszlo Halasz.   It was re-released in 1974 on Turnabout in electronic stereo (coupled with Prokofiev's 5th Concerto played by Alfred Brendel and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Sternberg).

We must say something about this concerto.  Grant Hiroshima, former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association writes:

‘The on-going publication of Sergei Prokofiev’s diaries is a monumental achievement. Translated and annotated by Anthony Phillips, the first volume alone comes in at an arm-bending 800 pages.    And this only covers the years 1907-1914, the composer’s late teens and early 20s! It is difficult to believe that Prokofiev had the time to generate so many pages of recollections while challenging his fellow students as the wunderkind of Russian music. Perhaps this energetic avalanche of youthful words is forewarning for the energetic avalanche of a concerto he would premiere before his 23rd birthday.

 

The composition he called his Second Piano Concerto is first mentioned in November of 1912. From that date until the first performance in late summer 1913, references to the Concerto occur regularly in his journals. About the premiere he wrote:

“Following the violent concluding chord there was silence in the hall for a few moments. Then boos and catcalls were answered with loud applause, thumping of sticks and calls for ‘encore.’ I came out twice to acknowledge the reception, hearing cries of approval and boos coming from the hall. I was pleased that the Concerto provoked such strong feelings in the audience.”

Confoundingly, the piece we hear in this concert is not the piece that raised the roof in 1913. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917 the manuscript was lost.  By 1924, Prokofiev had re-created the Concerto from memory, but the changes, he later suggested, practically made for a new concerto altogether.

 

As we know it today, the Concerto opens with a lyrical theme played by the piano against muted strings. This leads to the unprecedented and gigantic cadenza for solo piano, displacing the orchestra for much of the rest of the movement. The second movement, brief and possibly sinister, leads into the darkened martial footfalls of the Intermezzo. The Finale is a frantic torrent, as exhilarating for the audience as it is punishing for the soloist.

 

We have no way of knowing precisely what the original Concerto sounded like, but a diary entry from the period of its composition gives us a clue to Prokofiev’s thinking at the time.

“When you are writing a concerto, if you conceive of it as a combination of piano and orchestra, the pianistic side of the solo part will always suffer….

 

“What would be the ideal way to compose a concerto? It occurred to me today that it would certainly be interesting for a pianist to be presented with a concerto that had its origin in a technically challenging sonata and subsequently been transformed into a concerto. The solo part would be bound to be interesting pianistically, while the sonata itself would benefit by the reinforcement and embellishment of a skilfully added orchestral texture.”

He may have returned to this thought when he came to translate the music of a young man to the language of a more experienced composer.

 

There was a performance of the Prokofiev on 12 March 1954 with Rochester Phil and Leinsdorf in Bailey Hall, Cornell university, in a concert that included Brahms Symphony No.3 and Debussy’s  Nuages & Fêtes from Nocturnes.    ‘We were considerably disturbed by the composition...the extremely demanding score came off well in Mr Bolet’s hands.’    [Cornell Daily Sun, 15.3.54]

Operation Music

In the spring of 1954, Bolet became one of five American musicians invited for a four-week visit to West Germany as guests of the Federal Republic; this was the first time a foreign government had acted as host to American artists.   While in Germany, Bolet appeared as soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic.   (David Ewen, Living Musicians, New York 1957, 27)

On 9 March, the New York Times announced the Bonn visit.    ‘Five American musicians have been selected by Andre Mertens and a member of the Ministry of Fine Arts in Berlin (1930-1933).’  

Constance Keene (later to be the wife of Abram Chasins, who might be justly described as one of Bolet’s real musical mentors, wrote about the experience in the New York Times, 16 May 1954   The musicians embarked March 30 from Idlewild Airport (now JFK).  They were singers Carol Brice and Barbara Gibson, John Sebastian (harmonica), Constance Keene and JB (pianists).  They landed in Frankfurt on 31 March.   ‘Although we had all trouped up and down the American continent, none had actually performed abroad (in fact, Bolet had done so).’    There were visits to Munich, Bonn, Stuttgart, Cologne and Dusseldorf.   In Berlin they heard Wilhelm Furtwangler in Beethoven’s genial yet forward-looking Symphony No.2 in D major.   In Hamburg the actor Paul Linkman ‘thrilled us in Molière’s Georges Dandin’.    

George Dandin ou le Mari confondu (Georges Dandin or The Confounded Husband) is a French comedy, first performed on 18 July 1668 at the Palace of Versailles.    The play showcases the folly a man commits when he marries a woman of higher rank than his own.  Molière's Dandin is an impersonation of a husband who has patiently to endure all the extravagant whims and fancies of his dame of a wife.

Bolet was a great fan of Wagner's music and he no doubt enjoyed meeting the great Wagnerian conductor Furtwangler.   He even managed to attend the fabled Bayreuth Festival (‘a ticket, a ticket, my kingdom for a ticket’) in his last years.       In the Sydney Morning Herald for March 24, 1987, he says he has told his agent that he wants three months off next year for a photographic safari through Kenya.  ‘And then I want to go to Bayreuth to see the Ring, Parsifal and Tristan."  His diary for that period seems to indicate he did indeed go to Bayreuth.’

Bolet was back in Europe in May.   He sailed back to New York on the famous Queen Mary, departing Southampton on 3 June and arriving on the 8th.  His address is given on the manifest as 71 Washington Square, New York City. 

 

The Canadian Ottawa Citizen (3 Sep 1954) has an amusing notice.     ‘Ottawans suffering from that oft-quoted cultural inferiority complex should have a short glimpse at the following preview before complaining that there is nothing “on” in Ottawa.   In the Tremblay Concerts series, the Buffalo Philharmonic will include Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Jorge Bolet, noted Chilean pianist.  ‘This will be the first time in the history of the Tremblay series,  AntonioTremblay told us, that a major orchestra will perform a piano concerto.’ 

1955 to the Cuban revolution

Brazil and Argentina

A report in the New York Times, May 26, 1955 informs us that ‘Jorge Bolet, pianist, leaves today by air  to play a series of eighteen concerts in Brazil and Argentina.’     These were troubled times.    Argentina in May 1955 was wild.   Roman Catholicism was being disestablished (it had been the established religion since 1810 and independence from Spain).    RCs were arrested by police on June 12-13 in Buenos Aires Cathedral and the Palace of the Primate, Santiago Luis Cardinal Copello, after riots in 12 June between Peronistas and RCs.   This was a climax to seven months of church-state hostilities which led to a government ban of the holiday procession of Corpus Christi (June 9).   The President of the Republic, Juan Perón said he has tried ‘to liberate the clergy from its ancient obligations to the oligarchy’ so that they might better serve the people, but the clergy had decided ‘to show itself as a wolf in sheep’s clothing’.

How many celebrities turn out to be pineapples?

On Tuesday, 31 May 1955,  ‘Jupiter Pluvius  [the Roman king of the gods in his capacity as Rain-God: the reviewer Renzo Massarani obviously had a good Classical education]  did one of his usual things and from 8 o’clock there was a flood.  That – or the fact that the name of Jorge Bolet was unknown to us – explains why in the Teatro Municipal (probably in Sao Paulo but possibly in Rio de Janeiro) we were not 10,000 or 5,000 but a shamefully small little group wishing him well.’

 

Superada a desconfianza inicial (justificada: quantas celebridades acabaram revelando-se abacaxis?) o grupinho esquentou-se e compensou a exiguidade do numero com a sinceridade e a espontaneidade do entusiasmo. 

‘Overcoming its initial distrust (this was justified - how many celebrities turn out to be pineapples?), the audience warmed up and made up for the paucity of number with the spontaneous, sincere enthusiasm.’   [Jornal do Brasil 1.6.1955]

 

His playing is praised for its clarity and honesty with no cheap thrills.  The programme included Liszt’s B minor Sonata, Beethoven’s Sonata Les Adieux, Haydn Andante & Variations, Debussy Preludes (Puerta del Vino, General Lavine, Ondine etc.), Prokofiev Toccata Op. 11.    

Bolet arrived back on  28 June in New York on an overnight flight from Buenos Aires (Pan Am 202).

 

On Sunday, 18 December 1955 in the Royal Festival Hall, ‘S. A. Gorlinksy announces the distinguished American pianist’.   The programme included Haydn’s Sonata in E flat, Beethoven’s Les Adieux Op.81 and Chopin’s 4 Scherzi.

Towards the Cuban Revolution, the late 1950s

Old Havana and a 1957 Chevrolet.

 

Graham Greene began his famous novel Our man in Havana in October 1956 (and finished it in June 1958).  He arrived in Havana with Carol Reed to film, one week after publication, 6th October 1958.    The dictator Batista was still hanging on by a shoestring.   Captain Segura is based on Batista’s notorious chief of police, Ventura.   In the old days, according to Greene in Ways of escape, for $1.25  ‘one could see a nude cabaret of extreme obscenity with the bluest of blue films in the intervals’ at the Shanghai.     Norman Sherry Graham Greene vol. 3.102ff.,136ff.

'If he somewhere finds the demonic quality...'

On December 2, 1956, Fidel Castro and the rest of the 26th of July Movement rebels landed on Cuban soil with the intention of starting a revolution. Met by heavy Batista defences, nearly everyone in the Movement was killed, with merely a handful escaping, including Castro, Raúl, and Che Guevara.   For the next two years, Castro continued guerrilla attacks and succeeded in gaining large numbers of volunteers.   Using guerrilla warfare tactics, Castro and his supporters attacked Batista's forces, overtaking town after town.   Batista quickly lost popular support and suffered numerous defeats.    Finally, on January 1, 1959, Batista fled Cuba. 

 

Bolet gave a recital on 4 December in Carnegie Hall.    ‘He has impressed, with phenomenal potential yet has never really fused all into something completely his own – until now.’  Harold Schonberg says that this was the best recital he has ever given in New York.  Among the items were the Liszt B minor Sonata and Argentinian composer Ginastera’s Sonata (1952).     Bolet had been absent from the New York concert circuit for five years.   ‘If he somewhere finds the demonic quality that the greatest art requires, he will be one of the elect.’ 

 

1957

Another hatchet job (see July 1950) by the music ‘critic’ of the Chicago Tribune, Claudia Cassidy, in a review of 1 March, 1957 entitled ‘Sound and fury signifying not much in Jorge Bolet's Recital’. She talks of ‘what may have been the loudest performance of Liszt's Sonata in B minor yet heard in Orchestra Hall. Not the most powerful, which is quite another matter, not the most eloquent, and certainly not the most beautiful. But the hardest hit, piano-wise, as any seismograph could prove.

It was typical of Mr. Bolet's playing as I have known it - loud and bold, with a glittering facility this side of true virtuosity, without imagination and without musicianship - tho I really think that last is redundant. There is no point in playing Liszt's period piece without evoking the Lisztian era it personifies, all bravura sweep and romantic afterglow. Bungled, it becomes an interminable version of the ancient "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Happier in Mr. Bolet's hands was the contemporary sonata by Alberto Ginastera of the Argentine, an adroit reworking of familiar material, with little of its own to say.’


16 October  New York recital

JORGE BOLET has always been a gifted pianist. He is now becoming a major figure both as virtuoso and musician. It is time he received full recognition for his accomplishments.    They say that American schooled virtuosos cannot match the quality or glamour of the best foreigners!  Beethoven 32 variations in C minor; Schubert B flat sonata, Liszt etudes... ‘How many pianists negotiate the difficulties of Wilde Jagd ‘so surely and so musically’?  [Taubman, 17.10.57 THE NEW YORK TIMES]

 

9 November: Brahms Concerto No. 2 at the Royal Festival Hall, London

‘Few players have both the technical and psychological equipment sufficient to plumb the depths of this rewarding, recalcitrant music completely.   Mr. Bolet gave his audience a generous two-thirds of the truth of it... That the conductor Mr Henry Krips took a more romantic view of the work than did the pianist resulted in some slight but not particularly harmful conflict.’  Times  11.11.57

 

Cuban composer Aurelio De la Vega’s Toccata, composed during this year, 1957, was one of his most virtuosic works. Dedicated to  Jorge Bolet, it was one of the last works of the composer written in his homeland Cuba, just before the Communist takeover of the island. 

John LaMontaine's piano concerto, 1958

On 22 October, in New York City, Bolet ‘gave his annual Carnegie Hall recital and wound up with a blazing performance of the four Scherzos by Chopin.   This was not pretty-pretty playing.’   He ‘turned his fantastic technical equipment loose with results heroic in conception and pianistically daring.’   Crashing basses, scale passages flying, octaves that threatened to break the strings.   He is not a ‘colorist’ but is now searching for more subtle effects, experimentation with inner voices, pedal effects.  Ideas about rubato phrasing are 'more valid than they have been up to now'.   ‘If he ever conquers his few remaining weaknesses in tone production, he can develop into one of the giants.’   (New York Times 23.10.1958)   Harold Schonberg, the author of the above review, tends to speak as if with all the authority of the oracle at Delphi, though it is interesting that Bolet's tone - one of his most magical keyboard attributes - is called into question a number of times in the early days.

 

Chicago-born composer John La Montaine (who died in April, 2013 at his home in Hollywood, California aged 93) won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for this Concerto the next year.   He attended the prestigious Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, N.Y., where he studied with composers Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers, on a four-year scholarship, graduating in 1942.   In 1950, he joined the NBC Symphony as a pianist and celesta player under conductor Arturo Toscanini, who also mentored him as a composer.   In 1955, he studied in France with composer-conductor-pedagogue Nadia Boulanger.   In the 1960s, La Montaine composed three Christmas pageant operas for the National Cathedral in Washington.    One, The Shephardes Playe, was televised nationally by ABC on Christmas Eve in 1967.   Gerald Arpino set La Montaine’s Birds of Paradise as a ballet, Nightwings, for the Joffrey Ballet in 1966.   (Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun Times 13 May 2013)

 

In conversation with Bruce Duffie, the composer said, ‘I've had very, very great performers of my  pieces including Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Jorge Bolet.  You know, those  are such great players that you don't need to talk about correct notes; you  don't need to talk about correct rhythms.  They're in the field of calculus, not  of addition and subtraction. [...]  And then the performance that Jorge Bolet played my first Piano Concerto with most of the major  orchestras in the United States.  I didn't hear all of them, but the one that I heard him do with (Charles) Munch and the Boston Symphony, I cannot imagine anything closer than that.  I've been very lucky in that respect, and in fact I'm  profoundly grateful to those incomparable artists that have performed my  work'. 

A selection of Liszt Etudes, recorded in 1958.

Nine of the twelve were recorded.

 No.1 Preludio in C
No.2 Capriccio in A minor
No.3 Paysage in F
No.5 Feux follets in B flat
No.7 Eroica in E flat
No.8 Wilde Jagd in C minor
No.9 Ricordanza in A flat
No.10 Appassionata in F minor
No.11 Harmonies du soir in D flat


Click here to listen

1959 Bolet never returned to Cuba

After the Revolution, Bolet never returned to Cuba.   He was an opponent of the régime and in an interview, perhaps overdramatically, claimed his life would not be safe if he returned.

His brother Alberto left.   ‘In 1959 with Castro now in power, Alberto Bolet  found out that he was to be arrested, his daughter Adela Maria Bolet recalled, adding that he “wasn’t really a political figure, but he was a cultural icon”.     He fled to Britain, followed by his family, his daughter said, and later became the musical director of the Bilbao Symphony in Spain from 1963-1968 and musical director of the Long Beach Symphony from 1968 to 1978 and of the Symphony in Bakersfield, California in the early 1970s.   [Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 16 Nov. 1999]

 

On Sunday, 11 January there was a performance of Rachmaninov Third Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall, London (LSO and Walter Goehr).  Bolet’s massive hands ‘easily accomodate every note in the lushest and fullest of Rachmaninov’s textures’ and he has ‘a grand, if not beguiling, tone’.   This last comment is unusual as Bolet has been justly celebrated for the sound he produces from the piano.

 

On 22 August 1959 there was a recital on the Third Programme (which later became BBC Radio 3) including Ginastera’s Sonata [1952] and Norman dello Joio’s Sonata No. 3.

Bolet 1955

 

 

 

 

 

 

Serge Koussevitzky

 

 

Spokane Daily Chronicle 24 October 1953 [Washington State]:

'Jorge Bolet appears Monday with the Spokane Phil.  under Harold Paul Whelan [Brahms Concerto No. 2 in B flat]   ‘He travels with his own $7000 concert grand piano.  Bolet, who has a tour of some 65 concerts this season, is traveling by car and the piano follows him in its own especially designed trailer.   Manufacturers of the piano send a tuner to each city before a concert to assure tonal perfection.’

Uncle Jorge

Samuel Bolet 

'My uncle Jorge Bolet was always, naturally, a source of great admiration and pride to the entire extended family. I had the good fortune of attending a vast number (though never enough) of his concerts and recitals wherever I happened to be living at the time (starting in the 1950s in my growing years in Havana, and extending to Dallas, Charlotte, N. Carolina, Miami, and finally Barcelona, a couple of years before his death).  Memories? I could share a torrent, even going back to my youth sitting in Havana's Auditorium flanked by grandma, my folks and others applauding the two uncles (Alberto conducting the Filarmonica, and Jorge at the piano). One unforgettable program featured what few pianists would dare: 3 concertos, back to back!  In the first half, a Mozart concerto (no. 22 or 23?), then the Schumann, and -- after the intermission -- Rachmaninoff's no. 3. The standing ovation at the end was short of apotheosic!  Walking out of the theatre, my dad turned to his brother: "Ah, Jorge, why didn't you play an encore?" To which the soloist replied: "I just played 3 concertos. What else did they want? For me to cut my veins?"  Later the same day my dad and I encountered the orchestra's concertmaster, who happened to live with his family in our same building.  His summary of the afternoon's concert? "Jorge is a monster!" To us in the family who loved him beyond his God-given talent at the piano, there will always be much to cherish in his legacy.'

Bolet in 1955 before his tour of South America.

 

A recording of Prokofiev that would establish Bolet's credentials.   It became quite famous in the Soviet Union.

Serge Prokofiev

Sergei Sergeievich Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka, in the Ekaterinoslav district of Ukraine, on April 23, 1891, and died in Moscow on March 5, 1953. He began the Piano Concerto No. 2 in the winter of 1912-1913, completing it in April 1913, while still a student at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. With A.P. Aslanov conducting, he introduced it on September 5, 1913, at the Vauxhall at Pavlovsk, the imperial park outside the Russian capital. This version was lost in a fire during the 1917 Revolution. Prokofiev reconstructed the work from his sketches and reintroduced it on May 8, 1924, in Paris, Serge Koussevitzky conducting. Jorge Bolet was the first pianist to play the work with the San Francisco Symphony, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting, in January 1953. [Programme notes from the San Francisco Orchestra]

Prokofiev and family

 

Jornal do Brasil, June1955

 

Castro entering Havana, 1959

Castro has been leader of Cuba since 1959, when he created the first communist state in the western hemisphere. He is the world's longest-serving leader.

 

Fidel Castro was born on 13 August 1926 in the south-eastern Oriente Province of Cuba. He was the son of a successful sugar planter. Castro studied law at the University of Havana. He intended to run in elections scheduled for 1952, but the government was overthrown by General Fulgencio Batista and the elections cancelled. Castro rejected democracy and declared himself in favour of armed revolution. In 1953, Castro and his brother Raúl led an unsuccessful rising against Batista and Castro was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was released under an amnesty and fled to Mexico, where he was joined by an Argentinean Marxist Ernesto 'Che' Guevara.

 

In 1956, Castro and Guevara landed in Cuba with a small band of insurgents, known as the '26th of July Movement', and began a guerrilla war against the government. In December 1958, Castro launched a full-scale attack and Batista was forced to flee. In February 1959, Castro was sworn in as prime minister of Cuba and announced the introduction of a Marxist-Leninist programme adapted to local requirements. Thousands of Cubans went into exile, mostly to the United States.

Antagonism grew with the US and the Americans imposed economic sanctions on Cuba in 1960.

 

Relations reached crisis point with the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles in April 1961, which failed. Castro then secretly allowed the Soviets to build sites for nuclear missiles in Cuba, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the US and the Soviet Union came very close to war.

 

Despite his dictatorial style of government and ruthless suppression of opposition, Castro remained popular in Cuba. Many Cubans benefited from the free education and healthcare programmes he introduced. Cuba received considerable economic support from the Soviet Union. In 1976, Cuba's National Assembly elected Castro President.

 

Through the 1970s and 1980s Castro emerged as one of the leaders of the non-aligned nations, despite his obvious ties to the Soviet Union. However, the end of Soviet aid in 1991 led to a continued economic crisis in Cuba. Some foreign investment has been allowed, especially in tourism, and the money sent home by exiled Cubans is crucial. Castro stood down as President of Cuba in 2008 - passing the baton to his younger brother Raúl Castro.  [From the BBC website]