"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) 

1980s Fame in the end

A page from Godowsky's Fledermaus.

'Better the sun through the clouds...'

In the 1980s the DECCA/London recording company and producer Peter Wadland came to the rescue.  From 1983 onwards they issued a series of recordings, principally of the music of Liszt, setting down a vast portion of Bolet's repertoire and leaving an invaluable legacy.  

 

It has become the default critical stance to describe these recordings as tired and cautious.   Some of them may well be so, but the whole series is a magnificent testament to Bolet's playing, even in the autumn years of his career.  To paraphrase the voice specialist John Steane (who was - in this case - writing about listening to the Spanish mezzo-soprano Conchita Supervia on difficult, scratchy 78s), better the sun of Bolet's genius through the clouds than not at all.   In fact, the actual sound of these DECCA CDs is thrilling and the pianos are in tip-top condition (Bechsteins and Baldwins, often brought over from Holland and voiced by Denijs de Winter).   

Reviews of some DECCA recordings

Tex Compton, manager and partner since the late 1940s, died on 9 December 1980.


 The DECCA / L'Oiseau-Lyre recording of Don Juan fantasy (rec. 1978) gained the Grand Prix from the Liszt Society of Budapest.  

 

From 1981 onwards (in various halls in London), Bolet began his series of recordings (initially of Liszt) for DECCA.    He had finally met a recording company that treated him as he deserved.   Interestingly he recorded what became Vol. 2 (Schubert songs in arrangements by Liszt) first of all in November 1981.  And as a scholarly footnote, the song Lebe Wohl, S.563/1 had in fact been misattributed to Schubert at the time of Liszt's transcription; it was actually composed by August Heinrich von Weyrauch.    Then came Vol. 1 Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, Rigoletto paraphrase, Mephisto Waltz, La Campanella and so on in February and September of 1982.   The B minor Sonata, Grand Galop Chromatique, the Valse Impromptu  - uneasy but delightful bedfellows to the (allegedly) Faustian drama of the Sonata - and the Liebesträume  were also set down in September 1982.


In March 1980, Bolet recorded Reger’s Telemann variations for DECCA along with the much more famous Brahms-Handel.    Max Harrison in Gramophone November 1981 wrote:


‘Though probably a less central contribution to twentieth-century piano music than his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Bach, Op. 81 of ten years earlier, Reger's Telemann set is a magnificent work.   The quickest way to dispel any surviving notions of Reger's supposed turgidity is to hear Bolet in, say, the first half-dozen variations.   Written at the beginning of the First World War and premiered at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on March 14th, 1915 by Frida Kwast-Hodapp, it was the composer's last major solo piano work and is in some ways even more monumental in effect than the Bach set. Bolet responds extremely well to this aspect of the music's character, all of its musical and pianistic problems are vanquished and the score is presented absolutely at full strength, cumulatively being quite overwhelming... Indeed, though Bolet conveys great energy in his performance, he is careful not to play anything too fast; this is most important, so as to allow subtleties of harmony and motivic working to register.    The Handel Variations is a rather too obvious choice in that Reger is less like Brahms than is usually supposed, but it is a fine experience to hear Bolet in this work.  Altogether, his fierce clarity and decisiveness make this the catalogue's best current version of the Brahms.’

Jane Doe - Another Company, Ltd

First recording of the DECCA Liszt series appears in1983

"It is splendid news that, notwithstanding the deletion of his memorable L'Oiseau-Lyre LP, Bolet has embarked on a series of Liszt recordings.    And it would seem that he is trying the miscellaneous programming which produced such interesting results with Ashkenazy's Chopin series for Decca. Here Der Tanz der Dorfschenke is separated from the later, more ascetic Mephisto Waltzes, Funerailles from the remaining Harmonies poetiques et religieuses, Liebestraum No. 3 from its lesser-known companions.   The Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 might not seem a promising place at which to begin, yet from listening to this performance one receives the impression that there is no hackneyed music, only jaded listeners. The construction is frankly sectional, but each section here suggests a new vista; there is no overstatement, no false rhetoric. A similar comment applies to the Liebestraum, which is played with the most exquisite lyrical feeling.


Exquisite precision is the point of La campanella, Bolet's immaculate account of which may be compared with Josef Lhevinne's famous piano roll (Argo DA41, 6/66—nla).   Mephisto Waltz No. 1 and Funerailles are shown to be compositions of high poetic content, which is salutary in the case of the former, a piece often reduced by lesser hands to a mere display vehicle.   On comparing this account of the Rigoletto transcription with Bolet's earlier version (Ensayo) we are at once struck by the greatly superior recording. In Funerailles and with Mephisto he ranges from the greatest power to the most extreme delicacy, always preserving his exceptional warmth of tone, and at every level a fine digital recording does justice to the Bechstein's sound. Never in my experience has Funerailles seemed quite as sombre, almost oppressive, as here; this is a heroic elegy indeed, relieved, though not too much, by the dolce lagrimoso.   Additions to this series will be awaited with considerable impatience.’

Max Harrison, Gramophone magazine. 

Rachmaninov's third Piano Concerto in D minor

Rachmaninov's third Piano Concerto in D minor was recorded in September 1982 with LSO and charismatic Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer.  There was also a broadcast on BBC Scotland from Edinburgh’s Usher Hall with Bryden Thompson conducting.


‘Though always immersed in Rachmaninov's music, I have found it difficult to come to terms with this interpretation, and perhaps have not completely done so yet.   Certainly, although a great admirer of Bolet, I find it disappointing.   A greatly superior (digital) recording is one of the attractions of the new Decca, and at countless points it highlights Bolet's absolute command of this work's myriad pianistic complexities.   Yet the whole possesses far less character than most of his readings. The soloist's tremendous entry in the Adagio, for example, is beautifully played but does not have the impact created by Wild and Ashkenazy.   In this movement the drift into the poco piu mosso is finely judged, the finale's central scherzando is executed with great pianistic acuity, and there are other interesting features.’   Max Harrison, Gramophone   [9/83]

Franz Liszt (October 22, 1811 – July 31, 1886)

1980 Grand Prix du Disque, Liszt Society Budapest

Here are details of selected recitals during the months October to December 1980.    Such details offer an interesting insight into the life of an international musician and Bolet  had always done a lot of travelling.

25 September: JFK New York  to London flight

28: Brighton, Tchaikovsky B flat concerto – rehearse 12:00 noon, concert 2.45pm

29 (Monday) Lunch with Peter Wadland.   Fly Hamburg.   Staying at the Hotel Basler, Esplanade 11.   Press conference.

2 October (Thursday): Hamburg Tchaikovsky No. 1 – Mendelssohn Songs without words, Schumann Carnaval, Chopin Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor

3 October Hamburg – JFK New York flight

22 October (Wednesday): Liszt Gesellschaft, Budapest.     (Bolet was presented with an award  for his disc of the Don Juan Fantasy and concert etudes by the Hungarian Liszt Society, Liszt Ferenc Társaság, on anniversary of the composer’s birthday.   The ceremony was held in Budapest and was followed by a festive concert. See side panel for history)

15/16 November (Sat/Sun) Vancouver:  rehearsal Brahms Piano Concerto No.2

22 Nov: JFK – London flight

23 staying at the Midland Hotel, Manchester

24 Royal Northern College of Music: 2 masterclasses, 11am – 1pm and 2.30 – 4.30pm

25 Recital at College, Manchester inc. Haydn’s E flat sonata, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody#12, Liszt Sonata, Brahms/Handel variations.   7.30 drive to Preston.

26 Vernon Gallery, Preston;  same recital as Manchester

27 Fly from Manchester to Amsterdam

28 Groningen (Holland) recital

1 December (Monday) Amsterdam-London flight

2 Twickenham, St. Margaret’s Church, Chopin 4 scherzi, Liszt Sonata/ Rhapsody #12.  He seems to be staying in Richmond, a delightful leafy town in Surrey.   The body of James IV of Scotland who died at the battle of Flodden on 9 September 1513 was for a time buried near here in Sheen.

3  London – Bilbao flight

14 December (Sunday) Chicago recital

1981 'Statuesque immobility of an Easter Island idol'

A recital in Hamburg on 24 March 1981 can be heard here.    BEETHOVEN: Sonata No. 31, Op 110 in A flat; REGER: Telemann Variations; LISZT: 3 Petrarch Sonnets: 47, 104, 123; MOZART/LISZT: Don Juan Fantasy. 

On Saturday, 11 July Bolet flew from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia.   He gave concerts on 16 (Hobart), 18/20/21 (Melbourne), 24/25 (Adelaide, with orchestra) and 27 (Adelaide, solo recital), 28 (Perth).

 

There was also a solo recital in concert hall of Sydney Opera House in August.   The Sydney Morning Herald (17 Aug 1981) had a memorable description.   ‘Slowly striding on stage like some patriarchal walrus, then bending over the keyboard with the statuesque immobility of an Easter Island idol, Jorge Bolet presents a monumental image.   His first notes announce mastery.   He commands a wonderful kaleidoscope of tone and his technical security has come a long way since we first heard him here in 1965.’

 

2 Sept: a flight from Singapore to Bangkok

4 Sept: Bangkok to Hong Kong flight

18 October: concert in Guadalajara, Mexico with conductor Jan Huss

20 Nov: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.  

It was in November of this year that he recorded his first Liszt pieces in the Kingsway Hall, London for the Decca series (music which turned out to be Vol. 2 Liszt/Schubert songs.

A blog by Isabel on the internet has the following reminiscence.   ‘One afternoon in early 1981, we met by chance in London, in fact almost bumping into each other in the shop Fortnum & Mason.   Surprised and delighted, we made a date for dinner together that night.   I took him to one of my favourite fish restaurants, which was also to his liking.   With great enthusiasm, he announced that he had signed a major contract with Decca to record the complete - if that is possible -  piano works of Liszt.    It was of course a task that would last several years, and he talked about it in genuine astonishment.    His face changed when I asked about Tex, and he looked at me with downcast face.   Tex Compton had died the previous year in San Francisco, leaving, at same time, a break and a great void in Jorge’s life (un respiro y un gran vacío en la vida de Jorge).    He told me sadly that in the last weeks, when he visited the clinic, he did not recognize him.   "Imagine that, after living together for nearly forty years."    (This therefore places the start of the relationship in the early rather than late 1940s.)  

1982

On 24 February, Bolet gave a recital in the small but exquisite Wigmore Hall, London.  According to the Financial Times (25.2.82) he told a story, ‘splendid and characteristically zany’ about Moriz Rosenthal.  It was in this month (and later, in September) that Bolet recording for Decca the material that constituted volume 1 of his Liszt series.      Joseph Marx’s Romantic Piano Concerto in E major (1916-19), with the Bavarian Radio SO under Marek Janowski, was also recorded – probably on 30/31 August -  1982 but for radio transmission. 

  

He was in the city of Perth, Scotland on Friday 21 May, where he gave a recital of Liszt, Schubert and Chopin in the City Hall.  On 24 May there was a recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.   It ‘should have made a fine contrasting postlude to Horowitz on Saturday – for to the Russian, the Cuban is both antithesis and sibling’.   There was an ‘almost studied avoidance of the manic and mercurial’ but Bolet was ‘a brother from the same age of keyboard sensibility’.     He was ‘not on best form’ and the Schumann Fantasy was ‘laboured, pedantic, heavy in spirit, fragmented in impetus’.   FT 26.5.82

 

On 28 Aug he appeared  with Scottish National orchestra and Sir Alexander Gibson.   His first appearance in Glasgow had been in 1963, again with Gibson.

 

A sample of his schedule for the second half of the 1982:

25 August (Wednesday) he flies from San Francisco to JFK

26 JFK– London

27 London  - Edinburgh

[28 Aug] with Scottish National orchestra and Sir Alexander Gibson

29 Edinburgh to Hannover, via London

30 (Monday) Hannover,  NDR (North German Radio): Marx concerto

31 recording  for NDR

1 September (Wed) 6:40am flight Hannover – London

2 London Prom: Liszt Concerto #2

4 (Sat): British Airways BA4732,  9.40am London-Edinburgh

2-6pm Freemason’s Hall : practice

6 (Mon) Edinburgh - London

7 Competition, Wigmore Hall

9 Lufthansa LH053 14.50 – 17.05.  Staying in Eberfeld at the Kaiserhof Hotel

10 Rehearsal Wuppertal, then concert

13 Dusseldorf-London LH050 9.35am

14 Recording DECCA (material for volumes 1 & 3 of Liszt series); evening Janet Baker recital

15 Recording;   8pm dinner with Robin Ray

16 Recording.   Mac and Tex arrive [= Mac Finley and Houston A Cummings, now known as TEX after the death of his uncle Tex Compton]

17 Recording

18 (Sat) Ivan Fischer, LSO concert in Croydon

19 (Sun) Recording of Rachmaninov #3 [also 20th when he dines at 7.30 with Mr and Mrs Myers]

21 Recording (DECCA; auditions Kingsway Hall, 6pm)

22 (Wed) Recording

23 London-Dusseldorf  9.45 LH051

24 (Sat) Dusseldorf – NYC on Lufthansa LH 408 at 1.20pm

26 2pm photo session, Beethoven Society, 875 Park Ave., 77/78th streets

27 Breslin ( a meeting with impresario Hubert Breslin)

28-30 at Curtis

The Marx Concerto again

''In the piano part, he uses four- and five-note chords in each hand, and he's all over the keyboard. So memorization has been a tremendous problem. Unfortunately, my first performances of it are the ones I'm doing with Mr. [Zubin] Mehta and the Philharmonic, and I can tell you, I'm going to be nervous. Normally, I would prefer to try out works this complicated with three or four smaller orchestras before coming to New York, but that wasn't possible. And from here, I'm taking it straight to Vienna, Berlin, Hamburg, Linz, Zagreb and Munich. But I'm a sucker for this kind of music, and the opportunity to play it was something I couldn't resist.'' 
(New York Times, April 1982)

'Asked to elaborate on the character of the work, Mr. Bolet hid a faint smile under his thick mustache and asked, ''Do you know 'Death and Transfiguration,' 'Till Eulenspiegel' and 'Don Juan'? Well, that's the character. It's very Straussian.'' Then, sitting at a slightly out-of-tune piano piled high with scores, he opened his twopiano reduction of the work and read long sections from each movement. With its often dense piano textures, its stretches of lugubrious melody, and its stream of Romantic gestures, the work easily lives up to its title. It seems, in fact, an entirely fitting vehicle for Mr. Bolet, whose reputation rests on his ability to render such splashy scores in a manner that has struck many reviewers as entirely coherent and aristocratic, preserving what Harold C. Schonberg called ''virtuosity on the most supreme level'' without allowing the music to lapse into superficial displays of technique.'

1983

28 Feb:  recital in St. John’s, Smith Square, London, including Mendelssohn, Fantasy Op. 28 in F sharp minor (‘Scottish’), Chopin’s Third Sonata and the Kreisler/Rachmaninov lollipops.

Joan Chissell, in a review from a more gracious age, said in the Times [1.3.83] that the presto section was, on this occasion, ‘very much the province of elves, sprites and hobgoblins.   Mr Bolet did the composer a real service’.  On the Chopin, she said that ‘it was a reading of mature years, of someone recollecting emotion in tranquillity, but doing so with quite exceptional keyboard authority as well as musical sympathy’.   ‘Notes [were] thrown off in Liebesleid like sea spray caught in sunlight...and the ‘richer melodic succulence’ of Liebesfreud­ was achieved ‘without textural clotting’.

 

A recital in the Queen Elizabeth Hall was reviewed in the Financial Times [20.9.83] by Dominic Gill.   He refers to the BBC Scotland Rachmaninov masterclasses and says, ‘Four television appearances can do for an artist what music critics fail to achieve in twice as many years.   [A great tribute to the BBC whose role in Bolet’s career was considerable.   I have selected a short clip here where Bolet illustrates a point he learned from Leopold Godowsky.]   The QEH was sold out.   ‘A Gondoliera of silken sensuousness and a Tarantella of irresistible (though too constrained and benign to be truly diabolical) urgency.’  I think this last comment aptly sums up the genius of Bolet's playing.

1984

[30 March] Fairbanks, Alaska

[14 April] Czech Philharmonic and Jiri Belohlavek

16-22 April: Curtis Institute 60th anniversary

[8 July] Quebec City – solo recital

[14 July] Cheltenham, England – solo recital

16-17 July  City of London Festival at Bishopgate Hall, opposite Liverpool Street Sation: magnificent performances of Liszt Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude and Chopin’s third sonata, broadcast on BBC Radio 3.  The BBC could do a real service to Bolet by issuing these recordings.   


It was also in July of this year that he spent a week teaching one of the most well-known concertos in the piano repertoire, Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 2.  In a series of five programmes, through masterclasses, discussions and rehearsals with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paavo Berglund , Bolet illuminated a concerto which all music lovers think they know backwards. Kathryn Stott and Makoto Ueno were the pianists in a masterclass dedicated to the first movement of the concerto. The programme was introduced by Michael Oliver and broadcast in November 1985.


Peter Wadland, JB's producer for DECCA, remembers Bolet & Gilels ‘One of the most memorable occasions was when I took him to a Gilels concert around 1984, at the Royal Festival Hall. At the end, he asked me if I knew Gilels. I did not, but felt sure that there would be some backstage who could introduce him. My main worry was that I thought Gilels would have no idea who he was. My fears were unfounded, for on introduction, Gilels kept embracing Jorge, exclaiming "Jorge Bolet—great. pianist", to which Jorge replied "So are you". It was a peculiar sight, with big Jorge (he was over six foot tall) being embraced by the diminutive Gilels. 

 

The Gazette, Montreal, 10.10.1970  (Jacob Siskind interviews Emil Gilels).  ‘I enjoy recordings – I don’t have too many, I’m not a collector in any sense, but they give me a great deal of pleasure.  I remember that about 10 years ago I was shopping in Brussels and while looking through the bins I found a copy of the Prokofiev’s  Second Piano Concerto performed by Jorge Bolet.   I picked it up and I have listened to it very often.’

Peter Wadland remembers Bolet in the recording studio

"In the USA, he played a Baldwin while in Europe he played a Bechstein, right up until 1987, when he changed to a Baldwin also. Having watched him playing for hours, I understood why he did not like playing a Steinway.  In his opinion the soft pedal changed the tone of the instrument too much.

During his playing, he kept both feet on the pedals, using the 'soft' pedal as much as the sustaining pedal. This helped to produce his very individual sound for the instrument. I was always amazed at how the keyboard shifted from side to side constantly when performing. 

I have to say that we did tend to have problems with the Bechstein. There was only one instrument then in London, and every time it appeared for a recording, it had been reserviced in Germany and returned in a different state. It was very lucky that I had the good fortune of employing Michael Lewis (son of the late Richard) and Denijs de Winter, both of whom Jorge adored, to tune and maintain the piano during recording sessions." 

Gramophone, January 1991

1985

29 January: QEH, London - Debussy/ Chopin  Preludes - this was the first time the author of this website heard JB live.

 

In an interview with Daniel Cariaga for the Los Angeles Times, 7 February 1985, Bolet gives a glimpse of his schedule.    In the summer he is going to Fort Worth (Cliburn) for his last appearance as a competition judge (a role which he has now come to hate – ‘Include me out’ he once quipped, borrowing from Sam Goldwyn).   The winner of the Van Cliburn was Jose Feghali (Brazil)   He will fly from Texas to Paris for recitals in the Theatre de Ville: 5 one hour programmes.   The he will return to San Francisco for 3 /4  days.  He then has a recital in salt Lake City; then back to Mountain View.   Then to Australia for a 7 week/ 25 concerts tour.   Then back to Atlanta to begin their winter season.

 

In February, JB was to open the new Murphy Recital Hall at Loyola Marymount University on Friday 8.2.85. 

In 1984/5 he cut his programme schedule down to 12/13 concertos and 2 recital programme, one of which was Debussy and Chopin preludes.

A recital of Schubert/Liszt songs at the Kennedy Centre was described as a ‘consummate blend of the Ariel and Mephisto of music’ by Charles McCardell in the Washington Post 6.5.85


8 August 1985, Concert Hall (Sydney Opera House), Sydney, NSW; ABC Recital Series.

Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C-Sharp Minor, Bach/Busoni, Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin in D Minor, BWV 1004, Chopin, Preludes, Op. 28, Liszt Valse Impromptu, S. 213, Rachmaninov, Variations on a theme of Chopin, Op. 2.


3 November: Chopin, Sonata No. 3 in B minor, op. 58 recorded at a live concert in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (See side panel: 'Thoughts on recordings')

 

1 December: LONDON ‘[Schumann's] Carnaval was a marvel.   Bolet’s way with it is nostalgic, haunted, as if the whole glittering parade were being remembered from a great time away.’   David Murray Financial Times 3.12.85

'The least well-known world famous pianist in the Bay area.'

This title, from an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle 11.9.85 is very revealing.   Bolet offers a small insight into his routine.   ‘I’ve dismissed a student for being too slow when acquiring a new work – even though they had marvellous technical facility.   When on tour I have the music very well in my fingers.   On the day of performance I try out the piano for an hour, maximum two – to make friends with the instrument.  That’s all the finger wiggling I need.’

1986

1986 JB records Schumann's Fantasy in C & Carnaval for DECCA (January)

 

It was in this year that Bolet left Curtis.   His letter of resignation from Curtis is dated 11 February 1986. It is addressed Mrs Cary William Bok, President, Board of Directors

‘During the last few years my career as a performing artist has undergone a considerable change with ever increasing demands upon my time and energies fro more performances and recordings.’   He mentions tours and DECCA Records (LONDON in the US).   ‘In view of my present status as one of the few remaining elder statesmen of the great romantic tradition, I feel I must devote my time to my performing career.’

A most gracious reply from the President  (signed ‘Stormy’ – the maiden name of Mrs Cary William Bok was Storm)

‘We want you to feel that this is your spiritual home and to know that our hearts will be with you always.   Our pride in your success will assuage our loss.’

 

He resigns officially from role as Head of Piano at Curtis in May.  Michael Kimmelman, March 27, 1986  Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a review of a recital in that elegant institute on Rittenhouse Square. It included Grieg, Brahms (Ballades), Liszt, Chopin.   ‘At once fascinating and perplexing, brooding, dark quality, at times studied, a fine line between hypnotic and soporific.  How rare it is to hear an artist of such distinctive character and compelling vision.’

 

Summer: Friday 15 August 1986 (first appearance at the 6th Festival International de Piano, La Roque d’Anthéron)   9.30pm Liszt recital

Took place at Aix-en-Provence with a piano which had to come from Berlin.   Bolet was not at all happy with the instrument and a tuner had to be found immediately (Denijs de Winter).   This was all a little abstract as de Winter did not speak much English.  He worked for a whole day, right up to the last minute and JB got up onto the stage without having tried out the piano.   He then asked de Winter to do all his concerts.

Bolet also reportedly said: ""Now you see, now I have been discovered in France and I cannot make all the dates they want."

 

"The recital high point, however, was Bolet's sensitively coloured account of Grieg's G minor Ballade. The work comprises nine variations on a folksong; it is a quintessential canvas of Nordic gloom, and not heard often enough. Bolet did not eschew its opportunities for more mercurial, lighter fingerwork, but his prime concern was to convey an inevitable movement towards tragedy: the stormy finale and its wistful coda set the seal on a performance of rare imagination."  Richard Morrison, The Times

 

Reservations have recently been voiced on this page about the performances of Antal Dorati and, in particular, Jorge Bolet. On Thursday night, they wiped their slates clean. It was one of those evenings when chemistry between conductor, soloist and orchestra was at its most productive; and when the programming itself seemed to bring to the fore some of the most positive and distinctive aspects of their performing characters.


It was midsummer Brahms: the Second Piano Concerto and the Second Symphony, both written on holiday retreat in the Australian countryside. It was clearly Dorati's intention to minimize conflict at every point in the concerto's opening movement. The strings, obviously well-rehearsed, purred in assent to Dorati's cultivated phrasing, preparing a context for Bolet's deliquescent figuration and light, fluid rubato. He, in turn, was later to provide a long, expectant approach of sustained pianissimo for the solo cello's beautifully poised return in the Andante.

Bolet's particular skill at filtering melody into its harmonic support - something which so distinguishes his Liszt playing - made its mark on the second, gentler theme of the Scherzo. It ventilated the properly oppressive three beats - Bolet's playing made us feel the tugging undertow of each one - and, with Dorati's meticulous balance of parts, freed the movement to rise into the major without a hint of the bombastic.   HILARY FINCH ,  Times [London] 29 Nov. 1986

1987

1987 April 19-20:  video recordings made by Frank Bell in the Georgia-Pacific Center Auditorium, Atlanta, Georgia.   They have unusual shots from above the piano of Bolet's hands which really do look long and spidery.   That explains in part why he was not keen on some of Chopin's etudes which would not suit his manual physiognomy.

 

Sydney Morning Herald for March 24, 1987: JB 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.

Larry Tucker (Columbia Artists Management) telegram to Masa Kajimoto: 4/4/86: " Mr Mac Finley, who is business manager of the great pianist JB will be in Tokyo May 7 and 8.   It is my hope that you could meet with him to discuss possible tour with Mr Bolet in the near future.   He will be touring the Orient in March 1987 and still has March 8-11 as well as 28-31 available."

 

[1 Nov] Palermo, Sicily

 

13 November: an unfortunate performance of Rachmaninov's Concerto No. 2 with Montreal and Charles Dutoit at the Barbican,London.   ‘That the concerto was the successful outcome of Dr Dahl’s hypnotic therapy for Rachmaninov’s depression is well known, but I have not, previously, heard a performance which aimed to recreate the hypnotic state.’   David Murray, 16.11.87 in the FT

La Roque d’Anthéron and Hélène Grimaud, 1987

‘With a modesty as well as a feeling of misgiving that mark this charming personality, Hélène Grimaud took the risk in the middle of the summer of 1987, of introducing herself to Jorge Bolet, who was giving public lessons in performance at the International Piano Festival in La Roque d’Anthéron (south of France).

While she was already known to specialists, Hélène Grimaud played for the great American pianist originally from Cuba. What did she play? On reading Dante, by Franz Liszt.

And embarking on this major piece in front of Jorge Bolet was not without danger. He was thoroughly taken with her. We shall long remember what he had to say to us that very evening, without any prompting: "You were there this afternoon, I saw you in the room. I want you to tell your readers that I have not met such an extraordinary talent as this for a long time".’   Alain Lompech, Label France 41 (2000)

 

One review of Griamud’s autobiography Wild Harmonies  put it even more dramatically:

‘Another master teacher was the Cuban expatriate JORGE BOLET, who spoke no French and who in 1987 led a master class at the festival at La Roque d'Anthéron, known as "the Mecca of the piano."  

 

Of Grimaud (who at the time spoke no English), he said to a journalist from

Le Monde: "It's been a long, very long time since I encountered a talent of such extraordinary quality and sensibility of temperament."    These spoken words, once written, were soon heard around the globe,  setting the upward trajectory of her star.'

'No light, but rather darkness visible.'
Milton Paradise Lost 1.63

'It was during his 1987 New York season that we noticed his weight loss and increasing instances of inconsistent and/or uninvolved playing. That gorgeous Bolet sound was still there, but the ecstasy, poetry, and seemingly inexhaustible reserves of strength and power often gave way to introspection and caution. Interrupting another hundred-plus concert season to have minor surgery performed by his lifelong friend, Dr. Richard Carlson, it fell to Dr. Carlson to tell Bolet on 7 December 1988, the results of the HIV test required by the State of California whenever an invasive surgery is performed. Jorge was silent for a long moment and then looked at his friend directly and asked one question: “What do I need to do to stay active for as long as possible?”'   For several months there was no question of resuming his tour, but in the spring he did return to his full schedule, recitals in the U.S. and Europe, solo recordings of two Chopin sonatas, a group of nocturnes, and the two concertos with his old friend Charles Dutoit in Montreal, this last a particular source of stress.     He had performed the Chopin E-Minor Concerto many times over two decades, but had never gotten around to learning the F-Minor. Now he had committed not only to record it, but to play it in a half a dozen concerts. Given those circumstances, it is astonishing the Chopin F-Minor Concerto recording came off surprisingly well, but the Chopin sonatas and nocturnes, and two Liszt concertos (with Georg Solti and the London Philharmonic) were not released. Bolet’s New York recital had been postponed once and there were rumors from Europe of embarrassing recitals, including one in which he retired with a halting apology, unable to return after intermission.' 
 Francis Crociata in Marston CDs Volume 2

The final years

Earl Wild, Abbey Simon and JB share a musical joke.

1988

In 1988 Elyse Mach’s book on pianists appeared.   She had interviewed Bolet in the New York Men’s Athletic Club, Central Park and 7th Avenue  [180 Central Park South, New York, NY 10019].

An 1988 recital in the Carolyn Blount Theater, Montgomery, Alabama (4 April) was taped and released on DECCA.   This included a magnificent performance of Liszt's paraphrase on Bellini's Norma.   Yes, it is a little stately in places (no bad thing, considering the musical source) but supremely moving.   See the end of this section for a review by Joan Chissell.

 

13 March (Sunday) RFH, London inc. Beethoven No.31 Op. 110 in A flat and Bellini/Liszt, Reminiscences de Norma.   The programme says that JB plays Baldwin piano supplied by Pianomobil Antwerp.   I think it was at this concert that popular British comedian Frankie Howerd was in the audience, sitting right behind me in fact (he came in at the last minute, perhaps to avoid any fuss or recognition).   JB's repeat of much of this recital - on Friday, 4 March in Carnegie Hall -  can be heard here.

 

9 June: a recital in Ascona, a beautiful Swiss town on the northern shore of Lake Maggiore, in the canton of Ticino.   It consisted of LISZT: Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude; WAGNER/LISZT: Tannhauser Overture; SCHUBERT/LISZT: 3 songs; SCHUBERT: Sonata in A, D 959.   It can be heard here.  Although you might not think so, some Schubert had been very much in Bolet's repertoire from the start (the rondo from the D major Sonata D.850 in his Town Hall New York debut), though there was not much on offer at Curtis.   He was clearly fond of the big A major sonata.


[23 June] Istanbul, Attaturk Cultural Center, AKM Büyük Salonu 9.30pm - an exotic venue.

 

25 June at Meslay [nr. Tours in Loire Valley, France] replaces ailing Claudio Arrau for a recital.  "A kind gesture from one Latin-American brother to another, both of them heirs to the high Germanic musical tradition.   (Arrau was born in Chillan, Chile in 1904 and had studied with a pupil of Liszt, Martin Krause, in Berlin.)   But Bolet, venerable diplomat with a penetratingly stern gaze...seems completely wrapped up in himself at the piano his body bent over the keyboard from which he never lifts his eyes."    [Jacque Lonchampt - Le Monde, 28 June 1988 ]

 

Debussy Preludes (selection) : recorded in September, Davies Hall,  San Francisco.   He played a selection of 16 of the preludes and Gramphone summed it up in a review: "To judge from this issue, at any rate, this fine artist is not heard at anything like his best in this repertory."

 

One has, of course, to remember that Bolet was seriously ill.   

"Just for the record, Mr. Bolet was increasingly ill through much of his commitment to the English Decca recording company. The last recording, the Debussy Preludes, was produced at a point where he was critically ill and was withdrawn from the catalogue soon after his passing. The idea that he was trying to approach the music from a more studied and calculated position is outrageous. I knew him well and passion was everything to him. The deliberate tempi were a symptom that all was not well with him. Please do not do this disservice to one of the last of the great "Romantic tradition" pianists by repeating the complaints of listeners who choose to assume the worst rather than to recognize that factors beyond his control were gnawing at his very fiber!"   Morley Grossman   Edinburg, TX USA, in reply to a reviewer on the Amazon website.

 

5 October 1988: Chopin No. 1 at Davies Hall, San Francisco.   Marilyn Tucker (San Fran. Chronicle, 17.10.1990) comments that despite the fact JB has lived in Mountain View for the last ten years, the San Francisco Symphony has been a closed door to him. 


A disc of Cesar Franck in also recorded this year and there is a cherishable review of it by a much-missed Gramophone critic.   
"In the Symphonic Variations, Bolet and [Riccardo] Chailly seem to suggest, are a no less bold redefinition of the concerto not the gallic sorbet laced with Lisztian liqueur that they sometimes appear. Theirs is an uncommonly thoughtful performance, generally not at all fast until the genuinely joyous conclusion (the preceding sobriety gives it a still greater ebullience by contrast). The overall control, again, is so firm that details and contrast of character between variations can be delicately pointed without any danger of diffuseness.   A very distinguished trilogy of performances, in short, and most impressively recorded, the bigness of the sound according well with the bigness of the readings, but with a no less accordant fineness of detail. No, come to think of it, 'distinguished' is a weasel word for such music-making: this is great piano playing. "    
Michael Oliver, Gramophone [9/1989]

9 November 1988, NHK Hall, Tokyo.

1989-1990

Publicity material for the 1988/89 season includes Montreal Symphony (Dutoit), Orchstre National de France, Monte Carlo Philharmonic (Chailly), Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, San Francisco Symphony and the NHK (Japan) Symphony, recitals at Carnegie Hall, RFH, Champs Elysees, Alte Oper Frankfurt and Tokyo’s Suntory Hall and at the Bath and Roque d’Antheron Festivals, tours of the Far East and Australia and a tour of Belgium and Germany with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Edward Downes and Benhard Klee

 

On Sunday afternoon, 4.20pm, 22 January 1989 there was a television broadcast in the UK on BBC2 entitled  MASTER CRAFTSMEN - JORGE BOLET AND LEOPOLD GODOWSKY.   ‘The music of Chopin reworked by Godowsky and played by Bolet. Bolet talks to Michael Oliver about Godowsky's technical skills and how his transcriptions shed new light on the music. As part of a recital given at Findhorn in Morayshire, Bolet performs a number of Chopin études in Godowsky's versions.’  (The producer was Hilary Boulding.)   There is a nice anecdote that when Bolet came to play in Dundee, he asked specifically to be taken to the Angus Hotel in Dundee (now demolished) because he claimed it provided 'the best cup of coffee outside of the Americas'.

 

5 February - last London recital

25-26 May: the two Chopin concertos recorded in St. Eustache, Montreal with Charles Dutoit.   Bolet had to learn the second (F minor) concerto for this recording as he did not have it in his active repertoire.   He would have been much happier adding the Rachmaninov Paganini Rhapsody to the 'second side' of this disc.   There is a stupendous recording live in Karlsruhe, Gemany from March 1978.

'Don't cry - don't you remember the Psalm?'

In a rehearsal with Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund, savouring a particular moment in the slow movement of Rachmaninov's second piano concerto, after mentioning the "gorgeous chord" of the French horns. BBC 1985/6

On 8 June 1989 Jorge Bolet gave his last public recital in Berlin.

 

A year later he passed away at his home in Mountain View [Portola Valley], California (Tuesday afternoon, 16 October 1990, aged 75)   The cause of death was heart failure, said his personal manager, Mac T. Finley.   "But Mr. Bolet had been in declining health since late 1988 and had a brain operation in the summer of 1989 from which he never fully recovered." 

 

"A copy of Mr. Bolet's death certificate is in the Jorge Bolet Collection at the International Piano Archives-University of Maryland. Cause of death is given, simply, as AIDS. The pianist learned he was HIV positive in December 1988--a little under 2 years before his passing." Francis Crociata

 

Portola Valley was named for Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola, who led the first party of Europeans to explore the San Francisco Peninsula, in 1769.

 

In Bolet's last months, pianist Teresa Escandon was once by his bedside as he listened to his Carnegie Hall recital of 1974.   (He used to spend holidays in Mantanzas, Cuba, with relatives who were friends of her mother. Nuevo Herald, Miami 23.1.8.)   

Teresa cried but he said, "No llores.  No te acuerdas del Salmo?    (Don't cry.   Don't you remember the Psalm?)


And she remembered: 

"Ponme como sello sobre tu corazon porque el amor es fuerte como la muerte."   


Song of Solomon 8 verse 6

"Set me as a seal upon thine heart, <as a seal upon thine arm> for love is strong as death... " [King James Bible] 

Extract from the Gramophone magazine, March 1983 which finally brought JB to everyone's attention as a major recording artist.

"At that moment, Decca producer Peter Wadland came into the hall, and the conversation turned to the more immediate matter of Liszt. "What does that project cover? Wow! Shall we tell him, or do you think it'll scare him?" Appropriately scared, I learnt that the planned followup to the first disc of concert studies and Reminiscences de Don Juan (L'Oiseau-Lyre DSL041, 11/79—nla) includes Schubert song transcriptions, operatic paraphrases, the Sonata, Liebestràume, the Hungarian Rhapsodies and the Italian Annees de pelérinage (faint panic; "There's still all of Switzerland to do!"). Two more of the Decca team joined us and, evidently considering four pairs of ears sufficient an audience, Bolet sent the opening pages of "Spozalizio" (Annèes de pelèrinage), followed by the Johann Strauss II/ Godowsky Fledermaus (the latter piece studied with Godowsky himself during Bolet's Curtis days), out into the spaces of Kingsway Hall. The appetite was duly whetted."  ANDREW KEENER

 

Maurice Aronson, who served as pianist Leopold Godowsky's assistant, told of Josef Hofmann "learning" Godowsky's Fledermaus transcription. Godowsky and Hofmann met in Berlin in 1900, becoming life-long friends. Hofmann would visit Godowsky's studio and sit open-mouthed while Godowsky was working out Fledermaus. Hofmann's father finally ran into Godowsky and asked, "What have you done to Josef? He sits home all day and plays Strauss waltzes." A week or so later, Hofmann visited Godowsky and played the entire transcription, note for note. Hofmann had never seen the music; in fact, Godowsky had not yet written it down. Harold C. Schonberg, in his book The Great Pianists, 386-387 adds "that Godowsky's Fledermaus is one of the most fantastic, resourceful and complicated stunts ever written for the piano."

First review of Liszt series in Gramophone.

Peter Wadland, producer

Peter Wadland was born in Exmouth 28 May 1946, and died in London 30 June 1992.

James Jolly has written that ‘when the history of the gramophone comes to be written, one name high on the list of major influences will be Peter Wadland, who at his death was Chief Producer of Decca's early music L'Oiseau-Lyre label.     His early years were spent in Antwerp and Brussels where, with the benefit of a German mother, he received a trilingual upbringing, something which set him up for life.   

 

'In 1973 Wadland dreamed up the Florilegium series, to a large extent the British equivalent of the German Archiv label.   A chance meeting with Christopher Hogwood  led to the foundation of the Academy of Ancient Music, and one of the most successful recording partnerships of the post-war years.  The complete cycle of the Mozart symphonies launched in the late 1970s broke new ground in performance practice and in developing a new audience for baroque and classical music.

 

'But early music was not the music you would hear at Wadland's house.  Pianists of the old school - Lhevinne, Moriz Rosenthal, Josef Hofmann, Horowitz, Bolet and Cherkassky (the last two artists he worked with at Decca, coaxing some memorable interpretations on to disc) - were his greatest enthusiasm.  

 

'Peter Wadland was a great host - his house in Camden was always home to musicians passing through London.'

Liszt Ferenc Társaság

The history of the Hungarian Ferenc Liszt Society from 1870 to 1948 is the history of six different associations, with the ultimate aim being ‘to express esteem for the maestro, both in his lifetime and after his death in 1886, by preserving his memory and spirit’ hogy  kifejezzék a még élő Mester iránti tiszteletet, halála, 1886 után pedig az, hogy megőrizzék emlékét és szellemét).  

 

After the destruction of the Second World War, the society never managed to resume its activities, and after the communist takeover in 1948-1949 it was banned, like many other such societies.  For the totalitarian  state that called itself socialist strictly forbade all forms of institutional intercourse between its citizens that were not instated and controlled  by the party-state.  Favourable conditions did not arise during the liberation struggles in the weeks of the 1956 revolution, or in the period of bloody retribution  that followed.    Moves to restart the society had to wait until the Janos Kádár dictatorship had consolidated and begun to relax its grip.    Even  desperate efforts were needed to gain a permit to form an apolitical society, an act that the regime feared might set a "dangerous"  precedent.  

 

The society held its inaugural meeting on the afternoon of May 15 1973,  at the Academy of Music.    This was followed by a gala concert of works by Ferenc Liszt.    Letters went out asking for ‘founding members’ and answers poured in.   In the words of the Society,  people ‘seemed to respond to the same  question that the 19th century Hungarian poet Mihály Vörösmarty had put in 1841 in his ode addressed to Liszt - "Have you a word for the  ailing land?" - and to answer with a clear  affirmative’.  Mme Blandine Ollivier de Prévaux, a great-granddaughter of Liszt's from Paris, attended the meeting and was elected honorary president; Miklós Forrai, the instigating spirit behind the rebirth of the society became general secretary, a post he held until the  autumn of 1991, when he was elected co-president.  

The National Ferenc Liszt Society, like its predecessors in the last century, held gala concerts every year to mark the birth of Liszt; this  tradition has been revived by the society in 1973. In 1975 it founded the Grand Prix International Liszt du Disque, which has since retained  a prestigious place in the world among record companies and performers.

Cyril Ehrlich, Musical Times 1982

Emil Gilels, Russian pianist

ABOVE: Emil Gilels in London 1984, looking every inch a legendary Russian concert pianist.  © Sutton Manor Arts Centre     

Born Odessa, 19 Oct 1916; died Moscow, 14 Oct 1985. Russian pianist.   He began his piano studies with Yakov Tkach and Bertha Ringold at the Odessa Institute of Music and Drama and gave his first recital at the age of 12.  Between 1935 and 1937 he studied with Heinrich Neuhaus in Moscow and in 1936 he was awarded second prize in the International Competition in Vienna. His first prize in the 1938 Concours Eugène Ysaÿe in Brussels brought him to international prominence and launched a career which was soon thwarted by the start of World War II. Gilels returned to Russia, working as Neuhaus’s assistant at the Moscow Conservatory, where he taught intermittently throughout his life.   In 1947 he appeared as a soloist outside the USSR for the first time, later touring Italy, Scandinavia, Switzerland, France and Belgium. His long delayed American début took place in 1955 when he appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy in Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto.  His British début in 1959 met with similar acclaim. By 1968 he was touring for as many as nine or ten months every year. In 1981 he suffered a heart attack after giving a recital at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and from then on his health declined

Gilels’s recordings, many pirated, chart a development from early impulsiveness and heaven-storming bravura to readings no less exciting but imbued with the greatest subtlety, delicacy and inner concentration. His youthful manner is exemplified by discs of Liszt’s Fantasia on Themes from Le nozze di Figaro and Ravel’s Toccata, his later performances by a selection from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces in which, to quote his own words, he ‘discovered a whole new world of intimate feeling’. He recorded his commanding, intensely poetic readings of the Beethoven and Brahms concertos several times, and had virtually completed a set of Beethoven’s sonatas at the time of his death. His magisterial technique and rich, sumptuous sonorities are supremely in evidence in his 1955 recording of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, while his highly strung reading of Skryabin’s Fourth Sonata recorded at a Moscow recital displays the sort of wildness he allowed himself when playing before Russian audiences.  GROVE DICTIONARY OF MUSIC AND MUSICIANS 

 

Thoughts on recordings

Francis Crociata writes: "A recording of a magisterial live performance of Bolet's

interpretation of the Third Sonata is available on Vol. 1 (all-Chopin) of Marston Records Jorge Bolet in Concert series. It is from a concert at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis in 1985 -when he substituted at the last minute for an indisposed Maurizio Pollini. It has all the Bolet hallmarks -amazing colors, astonishing coordination of dynamics & tempi - as if he had an organist's crescendo and swell pedals at his disposal. Some on internet message boards have criticized the leisurely tempi--parroting the canard that late in his career he slowed down considerably...but that is nonsense- -discerning critics observed his slower basic tempi as as early as the mid-1960s.   


The selection of the performance of the Third Sonata wasn't easy. Several worthy performance survive from the 70s and 80s. It is also worth noting that Bolet did, in fact, record the sonata in the studio, along with the Second Sonata, but these tapes have not even been edited by Decca.  Incidentally, so far no live performance of Bolet's interpretation of the Second Sonata has surfaced. There is a tape at IPAM which contains an informal backstage session where he plays large sections of all four movement. 


Also in the Decca vaults are both Liszt Concerti recorded with Solti and the London Symphony--unedited--presumably at the same time as the issued performance of the Schubert-Liszt Wanderer. My understanding is that Solti refused to pass on the concerto recordings. This, to my mind, is less problematic than the unissued Chopin items--since we do have easily available wonderful performances of the Liszt Concerti with the Rochester Philharmonic recorded in 1980--during that orchestra's golden age under conductor David Zinman."

 
 

"Blue lagoons and green ti' punches..."

Hélène Grimaud writing about JB and about La Roque d'Anthéron, France, where she played the Dante Sonata for him in summer 1987 and ‘bowled him over’.


‘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. At the same time as I was mentally rehearsing, through the window of my room I gazed out at the hundred year old plane trees in the park, trees whose special smell always reminded me of Aix, autumn and the start of classes.’


‘What places to play! Silvacane abbey and the Lake of the Alders. Close your eyes and say these names, say them slowly, in a murmur. Fairies and water-sprites come to mind, don't they? Merlin and Melusina, under the magic wand of Orpheus."   Helene Grimaud, Wild Harmonies, p. 163ff.


In her memoir, Grimaud  presents herself, even as a young child, as ‘uncontrollable,’ ‘unmanageable,’  ‘unsatisfied’.   Without siblings, she was friendless in school; a daydreamer, she interrupted to ask inappropriate questions, something she felt guilty about.   


There is therefore something marvellous about her meeting-of-minds with Bolet, the controlled, impeccable diplomat.  I must say that her comment about recognising him as a master is one of the most affecting things I have read about him, especially as it represents the view of a child-of-nature aged 18/19.

 

Last recordings

Francis Crociata:  "The Debussy Preludes disc was the last issued Bolet recording, made in August 1988, in the opera house in San Francisco.  I find it to be full of interest and the signature Bolet sound—here as beautiful and well-formed as ever—is particularly well-suited to Debussy. Knowing this disc dates from so late in his life, the temptation is to dismiss it out-of-hand..., but I'll submit that would be a mistake. Sure, in his Decca Liszt, Chopin and Rachmaninoff recordings there are individual pieces which are disappointing recordings—but I can’t name a single issued recording where there is not enough vintage Bolet to make the purchase worthwhile. And, as I’ve probably observed before, I heard him a lot in his last five years (up to and including his last Carnegie recital on Apr 16, 1989) and only one of those recitals could be described as disappointing.  That was the spring 1988 program built around the Norma Fantasy. In April ’89— six months after he’d received the AIDS diagnosis, he could still play the Tanhäuser Overture as impressively as he did in the 70s.

"Several discs from the last years were not successful. These included the Liszt Concertos with Solti & London Philharmonic. (The Schubert-Liszt Wanderer from the same sessions was issued--not bad, but not top-shelf Bolet.)  The Second and Third Chopin Sonatas, and a disc of seven Nocturnes he had not previously recorded and the Berceuse.  These Chopin discs were also made in California in spring 1990--after he had revived from a coma of several weeks' duration.  I've not heard the sonatas, but I did hear the Nocturnes and found it to be one of the most moving and disturbing piano discs I've ever heard.  The Bolet tone was mostly gone-- disconcertingly monochromatic--and technique putting one in mind of the concerts and recordings of Horzowski in his 90s.  But, as with those Horzowski miracles, the playing contains perhaps Bolet’s most profound spiritual content--it's irresistible  to project the impression that it was the last testament of a great artist thinking long about his own imminent passing."