"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) 

The breakthrough years, 1970s

“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Photo (above): Richard Glazier with Bolet at Indiana in 1976. 
"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 [from mid 1930s], 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." (Francis Crociata)

Hunter College 1970 and real progress

David Saperton, Bolet’s teacher between 1927 and 1934 died on 5 July, 1970 in Baltimore, at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.   His address is given as 344 W72nd Street, New York City.

 

There seems to be a gap in the record of concerts in Great Britain during the period of roughly 1967-77.     But across the Atlantic, JB was finally making real progress.   In 1970 he gave a recital at Hunter College NYC on October 3 in which he plays Liszt's Rigoletto paraphrase; the concert was recorded by the International Piano Library.   It was a gala benefit for the Library which had been vandalised. 

New York Times, 27 Sept.1970 gave this report:  ‘What a perihelion of pianists to perform!’   On Saturday evening at Hunter College, the International Piano Library is sponsoring a benefit for itself.   10 pianists.   Several months ago it was robbed; thieves broke in.   ‘What they did not find was money.   The IPL has always subsisted on a diet of dandelions and blue-eyed scallops.  The baffled thieves instead found $200,000 of rare piano records or rolls.   In fury they set fire to the IPL.’    Fortunately many discs survived including the only know copy of Grieg playing his Humoresque (worth $1,000).   (There were precedents for this type of benefit concert, as Harold Schonberg pointed out.  Fifteen pianists played in a benefit for an ill and indigent Moriz Moszkowski, a nineteenth century salon composer.)  

 

The head of the archive Gregor Benko found that many pianists were sympathetic but, like Chilean maestro Claudio Arrau and others, were playing thousands of miles ways on October 3.   ‘He also found that some pianists, especially those concentrating on virtuoso romantic literature, regard each other, if not exactly the way Golda Meir regards Gamal Abdul Nasser, then something the way Elizabeth  I viewed Philip of Spain or Arturo Toscanini regarded Serge Koussevitzky.   And vice versa.   Fernando Valenti, Jesus Maria Sanroma, Earl Wild, Bruce Hungerford, Ivan Davis, Alicia de Larrocha (president), Jorge Bolet and the great Brazilian first lady of the piano Guiomar Novaes did play.

 

New York Times 5/10/1970 (Harold Schonberg)

4 Steinways and 4 Baldwins.   The Library ‘was not out to make enemies’.   Novaes the grande dame of the keyboard, coaxed delicate tones from the Gottschalk Brazilian anthem.   Dare one say who made the best impression?   Okay pin me to the wall and I will nominate Mr Bolet for his absolutely transcendent performances of a pair of Liszt operatic paraphrases (on Donizetti's Lucia di Lamermoor & Verdi's Rigoletto).’

When did Bolet emerge from obscurity?

Francis Crociata wrote a letter in June 1990 to the Gramophone magazine.   ‘[Music critic Bryce] Morrison dates Jorge Bolet's emergence from relative obscurity to the "genuine and inclusive triumph" of his October 27th, 1974 Carnegie Hall recital. Many who have followed Bolet's career would date the beginning of his widespread recognition to another extraordinary occasion four years earlier—a multi-pianist concert presented at New York's Hunter College on October 3rd, 1970, staged by the International Piano Archive. In addition to Bolet, ten other internationally-known pianists participated, including Alicia de Larrocha, Earl Wild, Guiomar Novaes, Raymond Lewenthal and Rosalyn Tureck. Several influential New York and London critics stated outright that Bolet's "absolutely transcendental performances" (H.C. Schonberg, New York Times) eclipsed all the others—"none were more impressive than Bolet..." (David Hamilton, Financial Times). It was one of those rare and legendary occasions, like [soprano Montserrat] Caballé's New York debut, when there was no question among the audience that a major new 'star' had appeared, unexpected and unheralded.’

The two brothers

14 February 1970, Long Beach, California.   Obertura a una Farsa Seria by Aurelio de la Vega, a friend of the Bolets and a fellow Cuban; Piano Concerto No. l in E flat by Liszt, and Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky.   

 

‘In his Long Beach home, Alberto Bolet spoke informally of the concert and his brother. "The other day I started counting the major music cities in which Jorge and I have performed together, but I stopped when I reached 52. In addition, there have been countless smaller cities. We have appeared with virtually every great orchestra in Europe and with many in the United States and Latin America.  Something extraordinary happens when we perform together.   There is rapport that goes beyond the love of brothers -- a melding with the music. Jorge has a rare quality of portraying music with the utmost clarity and simplicity. He is a studious, serious musician with terrific, unbelievable technique which he uses only as the music demands, not for ostentatious showiness."’  Independent Press-Telegram, Long Beach, 8 February 1970

 

Daniel Cariaga wrote that ‘Jorge...had not played in this city since January 1954, when he gave a memorable solo recital. For his return this weekend, his program was no less demanding and no less memorable.   The level of intensity and the brilliant ease with which this project was carried out could not have surprised us, of course; the younger Bolet has excelled in these characteristics for years. But the pleasure was fresh, these most familiar of concerto were given joyful revivals, and the collaboration between the brothers Bolet and our local semi-professional instrumentalists fruitful. The orchestra really rose to this special occasion, some creaking joints in the Liszt Concerto notwithstanding. One or two of the several woodwind solos in both extended works were delivered with more apprehension than panache, but the French horns were on top of things, and so was conductor Bolet.   Jorge was the star, of course, and he shone.

The evening began with an early (1950) work by one of the Southland's most respected resident composers, Aurelio de la Vega (born 1925), Overture to a Serious Farce.   As De la Vega's own program note explained, this piece is pre-serial and "freely semi-atonal" (as opposed to rigidly semi-atonal?), which means, I suppose that the composer now disavows his early style. Well, he may or may not disavow it, but it still gives pleasure. Its orchestral palette derives from Strauss (the Strauss of "Ariadne," that is), the harmonic language from Hindemith. The result…is distinctly satisfying. Too bad De la Vega, who was present, was not given a bow.

1971 Giovanni Sgambati, Giovanni who...?

It was at this time (1971) that Bolet introduced the Sgambati concerto to his repertoire.  On a personal note,  I can still remember the thrill of finding it on LP in my very first visit to New York City in the summer of 1988.   I think it was in Tower Records in lower Manhattan. 

Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914) was one of the few 19th century Italian composers to concentrate on concert rather than operatic music. (The other one whose name is remembered today is Giuseppe Martucci.)  His piano concerto dates from 1878-1880.   To be absolutely honest, it is not great work but it is wonderful to hear JB in his prime thunder through it majestically.  It certainly fills out his discography with an intriguing rarity. 

 

Gregor Benko says that Bolet learned Sgambati’s Concerto in G minor at the behest of  Dr. Frank Cooper, who was then associated with Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana.   Frank Cooper sponsored a festival of Romantic music there for ten years.   ‘Cooper had owned the score of the Sgambati and loved the piece and convinced Jorge to learn it (a somewhat difficult task, as Bolet was not anxious to learn new works).   It is one of the best of the little-known Romantic piano concertos and made a "hit" every time Bolet played it, in the US and Holland.  His initial performance of it was at the Romantic Festival at Butler University on May 19, 1971, with the Louisville Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jorge Mester. I was there and it was a great success indeed in every way.’

An internet blog states that ‘the Bolet version (the first ever recorded) was cut (the transitional tutti between first movement exposition and development, and I think, part of the development itself) and the piano part, in places, was altered by Bolet (the coda of the first movement). Perusal of the score on IMSLP confirms that Bolet did not play the score as composed.’

Bolet marked the concerto in his date book for Wednesday 1 December 1971, a performance with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.

1972 and a contract with RCA.

Bolet’s submission to Grove's Dictionary this year is from his address at 2611 East 2nd Street, Bloomington Indiana, 47401.   He lists his teaching with Leopold Godowsky as 1932-33, Moriz Rosenthal 1935, Rudolf Serkin 1937-39 and Abram Chasins 1948-52.

 

His career is making real progress now as he signs a contract with RCA. but the matter is complicated.     ‘RCA records has signed pianist Jorge Bolet to a long-term contract.   the announcement was made by R. Peter Munves who said: “Bolet is recognised by the musical world as one of the foremost pianists of our time.” Bolet will make his first recordings for RCA Red Seal in August in RCA’s Studio A in New York.’    (Jul 1, 1972, Billboard)   

 

But this project fell through.  A master-tape of an initial recording of works by Liszt was made but never issued.   Francis Crociata explains – ‘The reason the master-tape [which was finally issued on CD in 2001 by RCA as Bolet rediscovered] languished on the shelf for thirty years was simple: R. Peter Munves left as head of the classical division at RCA.  His successor scrapped extensive planned future recording projects of two notable artists then on the RCA roster, Earl Wild and Jorge Bolet.  On the schedule for Bolet were six solo discs devoted to Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Liszt and a seventh for which repertory had not yet been decided...and the heart of Jorge's concerto repertory to be recorded with <Mexican conductor Eduardo> Mata  and the Dallas Symphony.   Much of that project was reassigned to the then new-star on RCA's horizon, Tedd Josselson.   The impromptu Tannhauser Overture filled a spot on the disc which was reserved for the Norma Fantasy, which Jorge hadn't learned (and didn't like) and would not until the 1987-88 season, if then.’

 

2 Feb: recital in Alice Tully Hall, NYC [Chopin Ballades, Liszt Sonata]

 

March: records Prokofiev 2 and 3 with the Nuremberg SO under Ainslee Cox [Genesis CD]; also the by Sgambati.  This intriguing 19th century Italian piano concerto seems to have been one of JB's favourite showpieces - it is certainly hard to think of another pianist who championed this work.  It would be interesting to know how Bolet first came to know it. 

 

1 August: Central Park Sheep Meadow [Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 with New York Phil. under Jean Martinon]

21/24 August: recording material which is now issued by RCA as "Bolet Rediscovered".   [He had been enticed into the studio by Gregor Benko, President of the IPA.]

What might have been...

2The most important and unfortunate aspect of Bolet’s RCA experience [was] 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." (Francis Crociata)

Where have you been, where were you?

One of the most important articles on Bolet appeared in 1973.   ‘Where Have You Been, Bolet?' Where Were You, Bolet?' was written by John Gruen forNew York Times Sunday, January 28, 1973.  It contains a marvellous character study.    ‘To sit in a desperately cheerful New York hotel room with Jorge Bolet is to know the meaning of absolute contradiction. The Cuban-born pianist is simply too imposing and disquieting a figure to meld easily with screaming red-and-orange curtains, and wildly patterned bedspreads...’    He demands a far more austere setting, possibly a sombre Buñuel set with dark, musty wall-hangings, shadows, chandeliers, sinister rugs...   In a way he recalls characters out of Poe and Hawthorne.   ‘I am a very even-tempered person.   I have my mother’s temperament and character.’

25th February,1974: a red letter day

Bolet was in Europe in January of 1974 with a concert in Switzerland on the 23rd: Prokofiev No. 2 with Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Wolfgang Sawallisch in Victoria Hall, Geneva.   But an even greater engagement awaited him in February in that battleground of the pianistic giants, Carnegie Hall.  And 25 February, at 8.30 in the evening turned out to be a red letter day.

 

It was a courageous and unforgettable programme of mammoth transcriptions ending with Liszt’s version of the Overture to Tannhäuser, Bolet piling Pelion upon Ossa.    (Somehow Chopin’s Preludes Op.28 got into the mix!).   ‘Stung by years of neglect’ (perhaps Bryce Morrison is right here – he did after all  know the man personally), Bolet now showed exactly what he could do – and the microphones were there to witness it and to allow us to recreate it.   My own favourite piece is Adolf Schulz-Evler’s Concert arabesques on the Beautiful Blue Danube by Johann Strauss.   (I taped it from the LPs I bought in 1985 in case I wore them out.    Try 2 minutes 57 seconds in...)    I must confess to mild horror when I looked at the catalogue of (out-of-print) discs in Oxford’s Bodleian Library in the 1980s and saw what looked to me at the time a slightly ‘philistine’ programme.   Perhaps at that moment I should have realised (as I do now) the hostility Bolet had been up against in his career so far.    The pianist himself spoke in a 1983 interview about the 1974 concert: ‘I hate to hear myself play, and up till now, there's been only one recording I can stand—and that comes from a 1974 Carnegie Hall recital which RCA put out.’

 

I offer – why not? -  a selection of comments from admirers on Amazon’s website; the nay-sayers  about the man have had their way for far too long.  

 

‘Jorge Bolet, in spite of his massive technique and impeccable musicianship, did not, early on, have as big a career as one might have expected. But in 1974 he mounted an unusual recital at Carnegie Hall that brought him to greater attention...'

 

'Bolet's bravura mastery is magnetic - the music is genuinely of a seat-of-your-pants quality and excitement.... This was Bolet's breakthrough, but not only that, arguably the man's finest hour (or two)... ' 

 

'After the intermission, Mr. Bolet returns to the stage to conclude the concert with no less than four different piano transcriptions of other composers' works. This was a courageous program for anyone to book, given the predominant view of the time that transcriptions were quaint at best and a disservice to the composer's music at worst. Jorge Bolet proved that night that the Art of the Transcription was alive and well and worthy of serious attention... '

 

'But the whole recital is completely obliterated by the last piece in the program: Wagner-Liszt's Overture to Tannhäuser. Quite simply, this is by far the finest version of this gigantic work ever committed on disc.   Unforgettable are the final two minutes or so. These must some of the most taxing minutes in the piano literature, and they come after some 14 minutes or so of equally intimidating technical tour-de-force; to say nothing of the mammoth program prior to this.’

 

Yet however remarkable an evening it was, the life of a concert pianist meant that he had to repeat it or variants of it again and again.   In Sarasota, for example.   ‘The season...climaxed here Monday night [11th March] at Van Wezel Hall.   Bolet is no stranger to the Suncoast, at least to St Petersburg and Tampa audiences.’   His programme included the Tannhauser and Schulz-Evler, but this time with Chopin’s Third Sonata.   (St Petersburg Times,13 March, 1974)

 

The minutes of the Board of Trustees of Indiana University, 10 May 1974, state a grant to ‘Jorge Bolet , Professor of Music in the School of Music, [of] leave of absence without pay for the 1974-1975 academic year’.   It seems that his career was now finally picking up.

'An ambassador from the age of nocturnes and nightingales.'

1975-1976

There exists a tape in the International Piano Archive in Maryland of a performance on 23 April (1975) of Godowsky’s Fledermaus paraphrase recorded at Butler University, Indianapolis.   The sound is not good but it offers an opportunity to hear Bolet in one of his specialities.   

Marston CDs have now issued a performance from 19 May 1975 taped in the radio studios of Saal 2 WDR, Köln.

 

On 30 April he performed Brahms’ great Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat Op.83 with Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Silvio Varviso  in Victoria Hall, Geneva.   The programme also included Martinů, Concerto for double string orchestra, piano and timpani – but Bolet was not the pianist for this unusual fare.

 

1976 included another tour of South Africa.   It is instructive to read in his Date Book a sample of the itinerary and to see the life of a concert pianist in action.

10 January: leave for South Africa

23 Pretoria

25 J’burg

26 J’burg radio

27 Pretoria

2 February (Monday) Bloemfontein

5 Cape Town

6 Windhoek

11 Pietermaritzburg

12 Durban

14 Salisbury, Rhodesia

15 J’burg

20 Feb (Friday) return to USA

 

A recital in sunny Pasadena (Ambassador College),7 March 1976 was taped and it allows us to hear JB in superbly commanding form.   (‘Indeed, the audience erupts into spontaneous applause after a couple of the [Reger]variations, which I suspect must have been a first in this work's history!’ Michael Glover)   He begins with three Chopin Polonaises, (Op.26, 1/2  in C sharp and E flat minors, Op. 44 in F sharp minor, the Reger/Telemann variations Op. 134) , Liszt’s Three Concert Etudes, Liszt/Mozart Don Juan and three encores including Tausig’s reworking of the Strauss waltz, Nachtfalter (‘Moths’).

 

On Saturday, 9 May, Bolet flew from San Francisco to Tokyo for recitals in Japan on the 14, 19, 20, 21 and 22.

A bear hug big enough to embrace Willy Wonka’s entire chocolate empire.

It was in 1976 that Joseph Marx's Romantic Piano Concerto was finally resurrected – and by Bolet who reported that he had discovered the score in a private music collection in the mid-seventies. Over the following decade, Bolet performed his ‘favourite concerto’ with well-known orchestras all over the world, including Germany (Berlin, Hamburg, Hannover, Munich) and other parts of Europe (among them Vienna, Linz and Zagreb). 

Of the piece Jed Distler writes: ‘Simon Rattle once deemed Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony “a Mars bar of a piece”.  (For readers not from the United Kingdom, this is a very sweet chocolate and toffee candy bar.)   If that’s the case, Joseph Marx’s seductive early-20th century Romantic vocabulary wraps Delius’ sensual landscapes, Rachmaninov’s swirling keyboard idiom, Korngold’s fluid authority, and the chiaroscuro effect of Respighi’s orchestral palette in a bear hug big enough to embrace Willy Wonka’s entire chocolate empire.  Indeed, the spirit of Respighi’s Roman Trilogy liberally seeps through the three-movement Castelli Romani, recorded here for the first time.’

Bolet himself described it as ‘a bitch of a work...Much as I like it, I have played it seldom.   Although I’ve played it several times in Germany, I’ve only played it in New York in America with Mehta.’   He had looked at Castelli Romani by the same composer but felt it was more like Respighi’s Pines or Festivals than Marx.   In the same interview he praised Ginastera’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and John Corigliano’s Piano Concerto – ‘a truly marvellous, wonderful work’   (Elyse Mach p.35)

1977 Return to Great Britain, Godowsky recorded.

Bolet finally made a return to United Kingdom in 1977 for regular concerts.   There was a Queen Elizabeth Hall recital on 17 February: Reger/Telemann variations, Haydn Sonata in E flat HoB XVI/52, Liszt/Mozart Don Giovanni.

 

Joan Chissell in the Times writes: ‘As a comparative stranger on these shores [Bolet] was not greeted by a large audience last night.   In Paris in the 1830s and 40s this kind of pianism must have been common enough with Liszt himself.   Nowadays the emphasis has shifted from fingers to mind, from the instrument to the music itself, so of course such a feast of greased lightning runs and octaves, cascading arpeggios, wide skips and leaps and every other dazzling feat was spellbinding – the more so since Mr Bolet was so totally unostentatious in the way he threw everything off.   (‘He went a long way in disguising the fact that some of the Telemann/Reger is very dull.’)

 

Though not well attended, the recital proved very fortuitous for Bolet’s recording career.   The young and talented producer Peter Wadland persuaded Ray Ware ( of the L'oiseau-Lyre/ DECCA label) to meet JB for lunch.    The result was the Godowsky/Chopin Etudes & Waltzes disc, which had originally been promised to the International Piano Library.   It was recorded in Kinsgway Hall, London on the 3 and 4 October, 1977.  It was recorded in Kinsgway Hall, London on the 3 and 4 October, 1977.   He had given a recital the day before the sessions, Sunday, 2 October,  which included Beethoven Op. 57, Carnaval, Dante Sonata.

 

Wadland picks up the story.   ‘I remember the [Queen Elizabeth] Hall being almost empty, with perhaps as few as 200 people there (after all there had been no publicity) but when it came to the end there was a standing ovation— not only from the audience but also from all the critics—something I have never witnessed before or since.   I persuaded Ray Ware, then Label Manager of L'Oiseau-Lyre to meet Jorge and myself for lunch.   I was surprised that Jorge seemed slightly mistrustful of our intentions.   He had, after all, not had wonderful experiences with record companies, and when I proposed a record of Godowsky transcriptions, he explained that he had already promised this project to the International Piano Library label.  Finally (as much as I have enormous admiration for the recordings of the IPL), I was able to persuade him to make this record for L'Oiseau-Lyre, and the sessions took place on October 3rd and 4th, 1977, at Kingsway Hall.’   Gramophone January 1991

 

The disc was very well received.   Max Harrison, who was to champion Bolet’s recordings, said of it: ‘Besides the necessary virtuosity, Bolet throughout displays a quick imaginative response and a vein of fantasy akin to Godowsky's own fantastic ingenuity.’

 

On 29 May 1977 he was awarded Manitoba Order of the Buffalo Hunt for ‘artistic contribution to the Winnipeg Symphony’.

 

There was a tour of South & Central America in July 1977.   On Saturday 2 July, Bolet left for Mexico on Aero Mexico 401, at 5.45 in the evening.   On Monday 4th, he gave a recital in Bellas Artes, Ciudad de México (he was staying in Hotel Ritz, Calle Madero).   The programme included a Haydn sonata, Schumann’s Carnaval, and Liszt’s Sonnetti di Petrarca and Don Juan fantasy.   Then on Tuesday 5th he followed this with a Guadalajara recital, another in Mexico City on Friday 8 then flew back on Saturday 9th to San Francisco.

The Prodigal Son returns: Head of Piano at Curtis 1977

Bolet left Bloomington and accepted the post of Head of Piano at Curtis in June 1977.   The minutes of the Board of Trustees of Indiana University, 17 June 1977, state under Resignations and Expirations of Appointments: ‘Jorge Bolet , Professor of Music in the School of Music, effective May 1977 to accept a position with the Curtis Institute of Music.’

 

He was appointed Head of Piano at Curtis by John de Lancie  and was to remain in the post until 1986.   Bolet’s address while in Philadelphia was Apt. 15B, Wanamaker House, 20th and Walnut Streets.   His kept an apartment in New York, at 1365, York Ave on the East Side.

Moby-Dick

There could be no greater contrast to Jorge Bolet in the University of Bloomington, Indiana than pianist John Ogdon (1937-1989), who taught there – when he turned up for lessons – between 1976 and 1980.    One of the greatest British pianists,  a musician of rare understanding and phenomenal technical gifts, able to play and memorise just about any score at sight, tales of his impossible exploits at the keyboard are legion.    So far, so similar.

 

Following Ogdon’s coveted Tchaikovsky prize in 1962 (which he shared in Moscow with Vladimir Ashkenazy) and frequent tours of the globe, the meteor crashed to earth in 1973 ‘when he suffered a severe mental breakdown which led to his being certified insane and made patient of the Court of Protection.    Over the course of several harrowing years Ogdon would spend large periods of time in and out of psychiatric wards and halfway houses. The drugs and treatments prescribed sometimes affected his coordination, and his reputation suffered as a result.  Yet Ogdon's commitment to his art remained undimmed, and until the end he drew out performances of tremendous beauty and conviction from the depths of his ravaged heart’.    (Publicity material for Charles Beauclerk’s 2014 biography which ‘explores the life of a brilliantly inspired artist, for whom music was both his cross and his salvation’.)

 

Beauclerk refers to Judith Kerr’s book for children, The tiger who came to tea  and compares this with Ogdon, who was known to drop into friends’ houses and demolish their pantries and pianos.

 

Beauclerk is insightful on the place Herman Melville’s gargantuan Moby-Dick had in Ogdon’s thinking, comparing his ivory limb (the piano) to Captain Ahab's ivory prosthesis, and exploring Ogdon’s obsession with Herman Melville’s masterpiece.   In his own way, and based on his own difficult progress to the top, Bolet would probably have understood the agony and the ecstasy of Ahab’s struggle with the great white whale.

'An orchestra at the piano', 1978

Gregor Benko wrote in Gramophone, May 1991.   ‘A tape recorded privately on the stage at Curtis on February 14th, 1978 after a masterclass, when Bolet was in the mood and regaled a group of us with two hours of extemporaneous performances (including a hair-raising rendition of Rachmaninov's Chopin Variations and much Liszt and Godowsky) is one of the greatest of all Bolet's recordings— indeed, one of the greatest piano recordings ever.’


 

In July there was a trip to Brazil for concerts.   He took an American Airlines flight on Monday 3   8.30pm, arriving Tuesday morning in Rio de Janeiro.

 

He gave a recital on Thursday 6 in the Sala Cecilia Meireles, Largo do Lapa at 9pm.   This was a concert dedicated to Liszt and included Funerailles and the 12 Transcendental Etudes.   The top price tickets cost Cr$ 90,00 cruzeiros.

 

On Friday 7 July he left for Campos do Jordão and a recital there on Saturday 8.   ‘Jorge Bolet, ‘an orchestra at the piano’, as one New York critic has described him, will perform Liszt’s Consolations 1and 2, the B minor Sonata, Petrarch Sonnets 47,104 and 123 and the Reminiscences of Don Juan in the Palacio Boa Vista, Campos do Jordão as part of the Winter Festival.’

 

On Sunday 9 July he depart for Sao Paulo and on the 10 and 12 gave two recitals, the latter in the Teatro Cultura Artistica.   On Thursday 13 he flew on American Airlines flight 251 to Buenos Aires, Argentina.   After concerts there, on Sunday 16 he took a 9am American Airlines flight Mexico City, which was scheduled to arrive 7.17pm.   There were masterclasses in the city on 18, 20 and 21.   And on Monday 31 July at 10.30am he flew from Mexico City to New York JFK.

Campos do Jordão, Brazil

Polish architect George Przirembel designed Palácio Boa Vista, which was inspired by the English neo-gothic style.   Campos do Jordão itself was a municipality in the state of São Paulo in Brazil.    Its attractions throughout the year included German and Swiss food and a cable car.  

 

 

The city, due to its elevation, was relatively cold by Brazilian standards. The winter was normally the dry season and the colder weather allowed for warm fireplaces and winter foods such as fondue, soups and hot chocolate.    In spring and summer, you could see Hydrangea macrophylla blossoming all over the town.

 

The company Girimport was founded in 1977 to represent exclusively Baldwin pianos in Brazil.  At that time the market for pianos was high in the country, but imports of any kind for Brazilian operations were complex.    It began its activities by bringing to Brazil two Baldwin grand pianos, which were inaugurated by Bolet at Sala Cecilia Meireles in Rio de Janeiro, and which are now in the Maksoud Plaza Hotel in São Paulo.

On recording

“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 characterised many of his concert performances. In the studio, he was a master jeweller. In concert, he was a master storyteller—and when it suited the music, an ebullient entertainer.”   (Jeremy Siepmann)

"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." (Francis Crociata)

Ira Levin on Jorge Bolet

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 equalled 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.   (Marston records)
According to Robert Hairgrove, Jorge Bolet was fond of pointing out that the left-hand harmonic progression in Liszt’s B minor Sonata at bars 251-253 was the predecessor of Wagner’s “Liebestod” aria from “Tristan und Isolde”.  Indeed, the motif itself is in there, too. The Sonata was published in 1854 and the opera in 1859, so Wagner could very well have stolen it from Liszt, 

The great man’s expenses book has been bought at auction by the Goethe and Schiller Archives in Weimar.   It details his petty household expenses in 1884-86. The main orders were to a grocery on Mariestrasse for cognac, champagne, wine and cigars. The old Abbé was no great believer in abstinence.   The entries are written apparently by Liszt’s valet, Mihály Kreiner.

My favourite photograph of JB, one of the first recordings he made for DECCA under the L'oiseau lyre label in 1977-78.

CHOPIN (arr. Godowsky). PIANO WORKS. Jorge Bolet. L'Oiseau-Lyre DSL026. Etudes: Op. 10—Nos. 1,3,5(2), 6 and 7; Op. 25 No. 1; Trois nouvelles etudes, No. 1, Op. posth (for the left hand). Waltzes: ED flat major, Op. 64 No. 1 A flat major, Op. 64 No. 3; A flat major, Op. 69 No. 1; F minor, Op. 70 No. 2; D flat major, Op. 70 No. 3; E flat major, Op. 18 (Concert paraphrase).

Godowsky makes an extraordinary web of contrapuntal filigree sprout from each of the original texts, the whole suffused by a constantly shifting range of kaleidoscope harmony and shaped by the ultimate refinements of workmanship.

The results have to be heard, and seen on paper, to be believed, and yet Bolet shows they are not mere bravura stunts. Indeed, in the light of modern virtuosity such music no longer seems overburdened with detail. What Alfred Lockwood, in Notes on the Literature of the Piano (Michigan University Press, 1940), called its "heavy freight of counterpoint" can more fluently be carried, even if some aspects of piano technique are taken to heights undreamt of by even the greatest nineteenth-century players. Besides the necessary virtuosity, Bolet throughout displays a quick imaginative response and a vein of fantasy akin to Godowsky's own fantastic ingenuity.

Throughout, too, there is a scrupulous attention to the transcriber's (or transformer's) dynamic markings, as in Op. 10 No. 7, for example, and a gentle clarity is maintained which, as in Op. 25 No. 1, echoes Godowsky's recommendation of a "sensitive and sympathetic touch, extreme delicacy and refinement, independence and even fingers, a perfect legato, a poetic soul"

By no means the most daring of these transcriptions are included here, for Bolet does not essay the Revolutionary Etude recast for left hand alone, or the piece which simultaneously combines Op. 10 No. 2 with Op. 25 Nos. 4 and 11. Instead we hear some of the Waltz transcriptions, including that of Op. 18 which is in some ways the most striking of these. Bolet's lovely singing tone is more apparent here—in Op. 69 No.1, for instance—although his playing is beautifully recorded throughout. This LP plays for an excellent 53' 34" and it is to be hoped that besides finding many listeners it will lead other pianists to begin an exploration of Godowsky's vast and endlessly fascinating output. Max Harrison, Gramophone magazine.

The supreme Godowsky pianist of today: Marc-Andre Hamelin, who seems to make everyone else sound as if they are warming up with cold fingers!

 
 
 

Rachmaninov in 1978

To hear Bolet at this time, there is a stupendous recording live in Karlsruhe, Gemany from March 1978 of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43.  (The work was written at the composer’s residence, the Villa Senar, in Switzerland in 1934.)


Rachmaninov himself recognised the appeal of the gorgeous 18th variation in D flat major, saying "This one is for my agent."  [Michael Steinberg The Concerto: a listeners’ guide, pp.367-370. Oxford, 1998]   (You can hear Bolet in this at about 16 minutes into the performance.)   The 24th and last variation of the Rhapsody presents considerable technical difficulty for the pianist, and shortly before the Rhapsody's world première, Rachmaninov confessed trepidation over his ability to play it. Upon the suggestion of his friend, pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch, he broke his usual rule against drinking alcohol and had a glass of crème de menthe to steady his nerves. His performance was a spectacular success, and prior to every subsequent performance of the Rhapsody, he drank crème de menthe. This led to the composer nicknaming the twenty-fourth the "Crème de Menthe Variation". [ Robert Rimm, The Composer-Pianists: Hamelin and the Eight, Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press (2002), p. 142.]