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Jorge Bolet - His earliest recordings

Jorge Bolet (piano)
2CDs for the price of 1 — Download only
Label: APR
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Release date: November 2011
Total duration: 136 minutes 38 seconds

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.


‘This invaluable reissue of discs dating from 1952-53 is a reminder of Jorge Bolet's early stature. The first-ever recording of Prokofiev's malignant, ferociously demanding Second Concerto is of so much more than documentary interest … nothing can dim one's sense of Bolet's massive and unswerving authority, a quality at once lyrical and magisterial … a true aristocrat of the keyboard, his warmth and humanity strike you at every turn’ (Gramophone)
Throughout history, there have been artists for whom the spotlight came easily while others of equal or greater talent languished in obscurity. Jorge Bolet’s path to fame was a long and difficult one with more than its fair share of bad luck and unfortunate twists. When he did finally break through, and his career seemed destined for the pinnacle of success, circumstances beyond his control intervened and he was denied his rightful place yet again. Bolet’s immense talent was never in question, but it was not until he was in his sixties that he cemented his place in the top echelon of performing pianists.

Jorge Bolet was born on 15 November 1914 in Havana, Cuba. He was the fifth of six children brought up in a modest household. He began studying the piano at around the age of six with his sister Maria who was his elder by eleven years. She was an excellent teacher, and under her tutelage, Jorge auditioned for and was admitted into the Curtis Institute of Music in 1927. Bolet’s primary instructor at Curtis was David Saperton, but he also played oc­ca­sionally for Josef Hofmann. Through Saperton he met Leopold Godowsky whose music he championed his entire career. Saperton was Godowsky’s son-in-law, and he frequently assigned to Bolet some of Godowsky’s extra­ordinarily difficult and complex works, as Bolet was one of the few students capable of playing them. The close relationship between Saperton and Godowsky gave Bolet the opportunity to play for the master himself on many occasions.

Bolet’s years at Curtis were productive and enjoyable ones. He learned a great deal of repertoire under Saperton and became acquainted with many prominent musicians, including Arthur Rodzinski and Fritz Reiner who were both on the conducting faculty. Bolet made his Carnegie Hall Debut in 1933, per­for­ming the opening movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 with Fritz Reiner. After the concert, Godowsky introduced Bolet to Sergei Rachmaninov, who had been in attendance.

Bolet graduated from Curtis in 1934 and spent the next twelve months in Europe under the sponsorship of the Cuban government. While there he had lessons with Moritz Rosenthal and played many concerts. He returned to Curtis in 1936 to study conducting with Reiner. The following year Bolet had a major triumph when he won the Naumburg competition. The prize was a Town Hall recital, which Bolet performed on 27 October 1937. Bolet described the reaction to this concert in an interview: ‘I played, and I had fabulous reviews from New York Times critic-at-large Howard Taubman. Then there was the Herald Tribune and other papers – six in all in New York – that gave me fabulous reviews …’ (Elyse Mach, Great Pianists Speak for Themselves Volume 2, 1988). However, in what would be an ongoing motif, the rave reviews did little to advance his career. In that same interview he continued: ‘But nothing much came out of it. I had no manager simply because no one seemed interested, and I sought out no manager because I’m not now nor have I ever been very aggressive.’

In 1939, Bolet began teaching at Curtis, primarily as Rudolf Serkin’s assistant. The outbreak of World War II, however, put a halt to his teaching activities, and he resigned from Curtis in 1942 to serve in the Cuban army. In 1945 he left the Cuban army and enlisted in the US army where he was stationed in Japan. That same year he became an American citizen. The following year, Bolet resigned his army post to return to the concert stage. Once again, his recitals received mostly positive reviews, but his career struggled. Although Bolet was discouraged, he refused to give up: ‘There have been so many times in my life when I’ve thought “You know, I’m just banging my head against a stone wall. I’m getting absolutely nowhere. Well, I’ll give it one more year; and if I don’t succeed, I’ll just become a professional photographer”’ (David Dubal, Reflections from the Keyboard, 1984). In his interview with Mach, he said: ‘And there were times that were, to say the least, rather rough. I had years and years in which had it not been for my good friends, people who really believed in me and in my ultimate success, I just would have had to take up a job as a shoe salesman or get into some craft.’

Over the next two decades, some breaks did fall Bolet’s way. In 1960, MGM Studios was looking for a soundtrack pianist for the movie Song Without End. Van Cliburn was their first choice, but he was unable to do it. Bolet stepped in as a substitute. This opportunity came about because of his friendship with the composer-pianist Abram Chasins who was one of Josef Hofmann’s protégés. Chasins had taken Bolet under his wing to help refine his playing. They focused on those Romantic, nine­teenth-century qualities that had distin­guished the playing of Bolet’s idols: Sergei Rachmaninov, Josef Hofmann, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Moritz Rosenthal, Ignaz Friedman, and Alfred Cortot. Chasins was well connected, and when he was asked by MGM to recommend a pianist for Song Without End, he put forward Bolet’s name. Bolet described his role in the movie as a mixed blessing. Although it brought his name into the limelight and got him more engage­ments, there were those who now dismissed him as a ‘Hollywood pianist’.

Perhaps the biggest break of Bolet’s late career took place in 1970. The International Piano Library (IPL) was looking for artists to participate in a benefit recital for the IPL, which had been badly damaged in a fire. Jack Roman, the artist representative at Baldwin pianos, suggested Jorge Bolet. Roman’s recom­mendation was enough for IPL head Gregor Benko so Bolet was added to the line-up. The concert took place on 3 October 1970 at Hunter College, New York. Benko had never heard Bolet play before that evening, and he was completely unprepared for what he heard. ‘I was floored’, Benko said. The critics wrote that Bolet’s ‘absolutely transcendental perfor­mance eclipsed all the others’ and that ‘none were more impressive than Bolet’. Benko took it upon himself to further Bolet’s career. One of his close friends was R Peter Munves of RCA records who heard Bolet and then signed him to a contract. This led to one of Bolet’s career highlights – his Carnegie Hall recital of 27 October 1974, which was recorded and issued on LP by RCA.

Bolet’s future looked bright and it appeared that he was destined for inclusion among the elite pianists of the day, but then circumstances outside his control had a devas­tating effect on his career. Munves left RCA and was replaced by Thomas Z Shepard. In what can only be considered a colossal blunder, Shepard immediately dropped Bolet from RCA’s roster and replaced him with a young pianist named Ted Joselson. This was a crushing blow for Bolet. Once again, his high hopes and hard work had not been properly rewarded.

Throughout all the setbacks and disap­point­ments, one thing that remained constant was Bolet’s work ethic and dedication. It is a little-known fact that Bolet travelled to all sorts of remote areas in order to perform. His travel schedule was both difficult and taxing. In addition, because he was so reliable and willing to accommodate travel difficulties he was often called upon as a last-minute sub­stitute for other pianists. Some of the more famous pianists he sat in for include Vladimir Horowitz in the Rachmaninov 3rd Concerto (1949), Byron Janis in the same work (1950), Clara Haskil with Bernstein (1957), Claudio Arrau on numerous occasions, Maurizio Pollini in Minneapolis (1985), and Shura Cherkassky in New York’s Avery Fisher Hall (1986).

In 1976, Bolet played a recital at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. It was his first solo recital in England since the 1950s. Peter Wadland of Decca Records was in attendance. Wadland, who was already familiar with Bolet’s earlier LP recordings, was very interested in signing Bolet to a recording contract. The recital solidified his belief in Bolet, and after some discussion, Bolet agreed to make a Godowsky record for Decca. Bolet and Wadland worked well enough together for them to continue making recordings for Decca until Bolet’s health problems became too severe. In retrospect, this series of recor­dings turned out to be something of a mixed bag, occasionally capturing Bolet at his most inspired but more often than not lacking the sublimity of his live performances. This last twelve years of Bolet’s life, however, repre­sented the high point of his career. He had finally received the respect that he deserved along with an ongoing recording contract with a major label. Bolet reflected on his difficult career and long climb to success: ‘It’s just been a very, very slow evolution … I think I am today really where I want to be. My objection to the whole situation is that I am where I am in my seventies. From what everyone says, I should have been there twenty-five, thirty years ago … Then I would have had in front of me twenty-five, thirty years of just doing what I do best. Now how many years have I got left?’ (Mach). In fact, Bolet had very little time left. He died at age 76 on 16 October 1990.

The recordings
In 1952, Bolet made his first commercial LP recording. It was called Airs of Spain and produced by Boston Records. It contained music by three Spanish composers (Manuel de Falla, Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados) plus the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, who had heard Bolet’s playing as a gifted child in Cuba. These performances are the only commercial recordings Bolet ever made of works by these four composers. A Boston LP titled Recital Favorites quickly followed this. Most of the works on this record continued to be a part of his repertoire, only the Saint-Saëns Étude and Beethoven Andante Favori not being recorded again. In the works by Mendelssohn, Moszkowski and Saint-Saëns, one senses the pianist’s love for encore-type pieces. Bolet mentioned in interviews that he felt music can also be fun, and that he loved to see smiles on the faces of his audience after an encore.

Bolet’s next recording was of the Four Chopin Scherzi for Remington Records in 1953, a fitting choice as the Scherzi appeared on Bolet’s recital programmes throughout his career. He played them in Carnegie Hall on 18 December 1942 and again on 22 October 1958. Harold Schonberg’s review of the 1958 recital described the Scherzi performances as ‘heroic in conception and pianistically daring’. Interes­tingly, Bolet revisited just the second Scherzo in the recording studio, and that was only as part of the Song Without End soundtrack.

The last of Bolet’s early LPs (also for Remington Records) was of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 2 with Thor Johnson conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. This was a landmark recording in that it was the first recording ever made of this work. Even today, it is considered one of the greatest recordings of this piece. The Concerto was almost completely unknown at the time as nobody other than Bolet was performing it. The last time the work had been heard in performance by a pianist other than Bolet was when the composer himself had played it. The conductor on that occasion was Serge Koussevitzky. Bolet had actually been engaged to perform the work with Koussevitzky in 1951, a booking that came about through a chance meeting in 1949 with Koussevitzky in Venezuela at a social gathering. The great conductor had asked Bolet to play a little and was impressed by what he heard. When Koussevitzky learned that Prokofiev’s Concerto No 2 was in Bolet’s repertoire he made plans for the two of them to perform it at Tanglewood the following year. This could have been a huge break for Bolet, as Koussevitzky had the power to propel an artist he liked to the forefront. A scheduling conflict forced the concert to be postponed to the following season, but, sadly, Kousse­vitzky died in June of that year so the two never performed together. Ironically, a similar tragedy happened a decade later. Dmitri Mitropoulos engaged Bolet for the 1960–61 season with the New York Philharmonic but died shortly before the concert would take place. For Bolet these were the sort of missed opportunities, bad luck and unforeseeable twists that plagued his career.

Farhan Malik © 2011

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