Thursday, April 12, 2018

Jorge Bolet RIAS recordings Vol. 1 (Audite)


Franz Liszt
Années de pèlerinage, 1ère année "Suisse", S. 160 (e1 – VI)
Études d'exécution transcendante, S. 139 (1, 2, 8, 9, 11, 12)
Études d'exécution transcendante, S. 139, Nocturnes 1-3
Rhapsodie espagnole, S254/R90, ‘Folies d’Espagne’
Moritz Moszkowski
En automne, Op. 36/4

Camille Saint-Saens
Le Cygne (The Swan)

Robert Schumann
Liebeslied (Widmung Op. 25/1), arr. Liszt

Leopold Godowsky
Le Salon
Symphonic metamorphosis on themes from Johann Strauss

Frederic Chopin
Fantasy in F Minor, Op. 49
Impromptu No. 1 in A-Flat Major, Op. 29
Impromptu No. 2 in F-Sharp Major, Op. 36
Impromptu No. 3 in G-Flat Major, Op. 51
Fantasy-Impromptu in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 66
12 Etudes, Op. 10: No. 5 in G-Flat

Claude Debussy
Préludes. Premier Livre (I, IX, X, XII)
Préludes. Deuxième Livre (VI, VCII, VIII, XII)

Jorge Bolet, piano

AUDITE 21.438 (3 CDS)

The Cuban-born pianist Jorge Bolet was a famously late-blossomer, at least as far as fame and fortune are concerned. He sprang into the limelight  at the age of 60, after a celebrated recital at Carnegie Hall in 1974, a mere 37 years after his first recital in 1937. In 1978 he was signed to an exclusive contract by Decca, the source of most of the studio recordings we have of his playing. The performances on this fine 3-disc set from Audite all pre-date his rise. They are taken from original tapes in the archives of RIAS (the Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor, which was a radio and television station broadcasting in the American sector of Berlin during the Cold War).

As is usual with releases from Audite, the general production values are first rate. The nicely produced box includes a long essay by Wolfgang Rathert and full recording details. The sound quality is also very good, and certainly good enough to appeal beyond historical recording enthusiasts. 

As a pianist, Bolet elicited strong reactions. Hailed as the last great Romantic pianist by some, he was derided as an empty virtuouso by others. It’s certainly true that he gravitated towards the virtuoso end of the repertoire. This collection contains, for example, one of the Godowsky transcriptions of Chopin’s Etudes, famed for their difficulty. And the second disc ends with a suitably pyrotechnic rendition of Debussy’s ‘Feux d’artifice‘.

The first disc, though, clearly gives the lie to the idea that Bolet had nothing to contribute but his prodigious technique. The six pieces from Liszt’s Années de Pélerinage are played with an emotional range often missing in recordings of Liszt’s solo piano works. I am not much of a Liszt enthusiast at the best of times, but Bolet makes a powerful case for the Études d'exécution transcendante in the six pieces that he plays.

On the other hand, I suspect that many will find his approach to Chopin and Debussy too heavy. He is a master of technique and color, but there is not much of the dance in his Chopin or impressionistic shimmering in his Debussy. Of course, for others these would be advantages.

Bolet was a highly distinctive pianist voice and this collection is an important addition to his discography. The pieces on Disc 2 by Moszowski, Saint-Saens, and Godowsky will be a distraction for some, and a delight to others. But the appeal of this collection surely lies in more mainstream regions of the repertoire. This is a must-buy for Lisztians and deserves serious attention from Chopin and Debussy enthusiasts.