Today would have been the 104th birthday of Jorge Bolet, one of the undisputed legends of 20th-century piano playing and an artist who embodied, better than almost anyone else, the virtues of charm, polish, sophistication, and intelligent virtuosity. He was an unabashed Old World Romantic, though for most of his career this sensibility seemed to work very much against him.
Born in Havana, the prodigiously talented Bolet quickly outgrew the tutelage of his sister Maria, and at the age of 12, he enrolled at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. There he studied with such luminaries as David Saperton, Leopold Godowsky, Josef Hofmann, and Moriz Rosenthal. Hofmann was a special influence, and from him Bolet presumably learned how a pianist might mold sounds out of the keys, the way a potter works with clay, when so many lesser instrumentalists might choose to pound the ivory percussively. With a formidable technique and keen musical instincts, Bolet seemed destined for a big career, especially after he triumphed at the 1937 Naumburg International Piano Competition. True, he made recordings and performed in many capitals of Europe, but he ended up following different paths, joining the U.S. Army and then the Foreign Service. For a time, he was the cultural attaché at the Cuban Embassy in Washington, and as an American diplomat in postwar Japan, Bolet led that country’s premiere of The Mikado.
He would return to performing full time but toiled for years in relative obscurity. His Romantic temperament and fondness for a repertoire centered around Franz Liszt, the exemplar of 19th-century virtuosity, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, were out of place in cooler, more modern times. In the 1950s and ’60s, fidelity to the musical score was paramount, as was an almost slavish adherence to meter and rhythm, yet in this drive (admirable as it surely was) to communicate the composer’s intent at all costs, the individuality and personality of the interpreter were often sacrificed. For the true Romantic artist, that would be anathema. Tastes, however, change, and so too did Bolet’s fortunes after a Carnegie Hall recital on February 25, 1974: after that performance, the 60-year-old pianist would enjoy a late and well-deserved flourishing, with world tours, critical acclaim, and numerous studio recordings.
Bolet’s program that magical evening was filled with the repertoire he loved best: Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of the Bach Chaconne; the 24 Préludes of Chopin; Strauss family transcriptions by Carl Tausig and Adolf Schultz-Evler, including a spellbinding rendition of “The Blue Danube” waltz. And then, at the end of the announced program, after some 75 minutes of arduous exhibition, Bolet sat down to play Liszt’s transcription of the Tannhäuser Overture by Wagner. In Liszt’s day, operatic paraphrases were all the rage, as were fantasies based on themes from operas (think of Pablo de Sarasate’s violin works based on Bizet’s Carmen and Mozart’s Magic Flute). By nature, paraphrases were designed to be virtuoso vehicles, and Liszt’s take on Tannhäuser is a supreme test of even the most athletic pianist. Bolet’s performance is something wondrous to behold. I’ve probably listened to it 50 times, and it never fails to give me chills, beginning with the noble and solemn opening theme. Bolet’s famous velvet touch, his delicacy and precision, his effortless virtuosity, his ability to shape the musical lines, pulling voices out of thick textures—these are on display throughout those 16 devilish minutes. That inimitable Bolet sound is all finesse and elegance: there is heft without dominance, power without crudeness. And at the end of the piece, with the right hand spinning out flying cascades of notes and the left hand intoning chords like some grand cathedral organ, one can only marvel at Bolet’s dexterity and endurance. To play so spectacularly at the conclusion of such a taxing recital—and with encores yet to come? That is nothing short of breathtaking.
Listen to Jorge Bolet perform the Liszt-Wagner Tannhäuser Overture, from his Carnegie Hall performance on February 25, 1974:
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