Jorge Bolet’s unreleased first recording

Jorge Bolet’s unreleased first recording


norman lebrecht

May 05, 2018

As rare as it gets.

The Cuban-born pianist was 22 at the time, a student of Godowsky and Josef Hofmann.

The following year, he won the Naumburg Competition and had lift-off.


  • barry guerrero says:

    I wish Decca would put Bolet’s Liszt recordings back into circulation. On the whole, I find them more satisfying than Leslie Howard’s (which ain’t bad). Still, this is not an area I can claim to be expert at. What I’ve heard of Cziffra I really like.

    • moonpavilion says:

      Jorge Bolet’s DECCA recordings have come in for a lot of unfavourable criticism. All I would say is that they are how I first came to know and admire this artist, so they must have something. I’d never heard of him until the Liszt volume 1 in April 1983 though I recall seeing a photo of the Chopin/Godowsky LP in Gramophone 1977 – my favourite photo of the pianist. I’ve collected virtually everything since and produced a website on his life (see below). It is interesting to read the high praise in Gramophone when the LPs first were issued. Max Harrison et al. clearly loved him, too. And the fact remains that it was the DECCA discs and the resultant programmes filmed by BBC Scotland which brought Bolet to a much wider audience. Dominic Gill in the FT: “Four television appearances can do for an artist what music critics fail to achieve in twice as many years.”

      To paraphrase the voice specialist John Steane (who was writing about the experience of listening to the Spanish mezzo-soprano Conchita Supervia on difficult, scratchy 78s), better the sun of Bolet’s genius through the clouds of late-career recordings 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 maintained/voiced by Denijs de Winter).

      • Simon Hall says:

        Bolet’s Decca recordings introduced me to Liszt and I loved them. A friend then played me some Arrau discs of Liszt and I felt like I was hearing pieces I knew for the first time. As Arrau seemed more emotionally involved in the music, so was I.

        • Michael Endres says:

          Arrau is for me one of the finest and most profound interpreters of Liszt.
          Three favorite recordings have stuck with me over the years:
          Jeux d’eau a la Villa d’este ( late Studio rec.)
          Benediction dans la solitude
          The Verdi paraphrases

          The rich sonority of his sound, his generally broader tempi, the nobility of his personality, all that serves Liszt extremely well, whose music, due to its flexible and improvisatory nature acts like a mirror in regard to the performers very own taste and style.

          • barry guerrero says:

            Thanks for the input. I’m not a huge classical piano buff (love jazz pianists), but I will seek out Arrau’s Liszt.

    • Bruce says:

      Is this what you meant?

      (BTW it looks like you could download all 9 CDs for $6.99 — could that be for real??)

  • Bill says:

    I remember hearing Bolet live when I was a stage manager at a concert hall in the early 80’s. We had a Baldwin SD-10 brought in just for the occasion (The hall only had Steinways) and had Baldwin’s top technician come in to set the piano up for him.

    All I can remember was the absolute majesty, nobility and sonority of his playing, unlike anyone else I had heard up to that point. Since that time, although I am not a piano player, I couldn’t see why anyone would play a Steinway after hearing the sound he got out of that Baldwin, it’s a shame that Baldwin has been reduced to the likes of Miley Cyrus as their top endorser.

    Plus he was an absolute gentleman to work with.

    They don’t make ’em like that any more.

    • Doug says:

      Miley Cyrus? What exactly does she do with the piano? Ok. Don’t tell me…

      • Bill says:

        I don’t know, ask the parent company, Gibson. They have no classical or jazz artists on their artist list any more for Baldwin, just some pop and rock performers, the last I looked.
        Gibson seems to have pretty much destroyed everything they own, including themselves. They just entered chapter 11.

  • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    Jorge Bolet’s primary teacher at Curtis was, I believe, David Saperton, who taught most of Hofmann’s students and had many of his own. By the mid-1930s, Hofmann taught very little and finally left around 1938 after a falling-out with Mary Louise Curtis, the founder. The reasons for Hofmann’s departure were allegedly over a salary dispute, but the real reason was much more complicated.

    Jorge served on the Curtis faculty from the late 70s through the late 80s. His final faculty recital (c.1987) drew the largest audience ever seen in the room then called Curtis Hall (formerly Casimir Hall after Hofmann’s father, and now named Field Concert Hall in honor of a donor in the early 2000s). Jorge agreed to audience seating on the tiny stage because of the overflow crowd. Truly an unforgettable event because his playing was still remarkable because of his consummate technique, gorgeous sound, and sensitive musicianship. As stated above, he was a refined gentleman.

    He was a Baldwin artist who had 2 Baldwin grands installed in a studio (courtesy of Baldwin) in an all-Steinway school. Many feathers were ruffled.

    Jorge Bolet died on October 16, 1990, two days after Leonard Bernstein.

    BTW, he always referred to himself as “George Bolette” (and not Horgay Bolay)

    • moonpavilion says:

      Thank you Robert for very interesting information. I can add a little more.

      Bolet’s first audition was on 27 September 1927, in which he auditioned for the remarkable founder of the Curtis Institute, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, and members of the Piano Faculty Isabelle Vengerova and David Saperton. There was a second audition on 6 October 1927 for the Director Josef Hofmann and Mrs. Bok. First day of classes for the 1927-28 year was 3 October, 1927.

      Bolet’s sister Maria: “Jorge had his piano examination Tuesday and yesterday he had theory. He was accepted and won a scholarship, is not that grand…?”

      From 1927-34, Bolet was taught at Curtis by David Saperton (1889-1970), son-in-law of pianist-composer Leopold Godowsky, whose music Bolet would champion throughout his career.

      “My teacher (at Curtis) didn’t have to correct any purely mechanical aspects of my technique. He more or less took off from where I was. My sister must have taught me extremely well. Mr Saperton suggested my working on a good number of exercises, mostly from the Joseffy School of advanced piano playing. I use these studies very religiously with my students.” (Interview in Adele Marcus, Great pianists.). But I am led to believe that the working relationship of pupil/teacher was not an easy one.

      Bolet said in interviews that he would play for Hofmann on occasion but these were never lessons.

    • moonpavilion says:

      When Bolet retired from Curtis in February 1986 he received a gracious letter from the President (Mrs Cary William Bok):
      ‘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.’

      • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

        Thanks for the additional interesting info.

        At the time, the reasons for Bolet’s resignation were not completely clear, but with hindsight, I theorized that he already knew that he was ill and wanted to devote the time left to him exclusively to performing and recording. Also, with the appointment of Gary Graffman, then a piano faculty member, as Artistic Director and de facto head of the piano department, Jorge left Curtis on what appeared to be good terms (and I believe that was true). He came back the following year to perform the farewell recital that I mentioned above. He played that last recital on a Baldwin concert grand which is very slightly larger than a Steinway model D and it did not fit on the stage elevator. He paid for the installation and tuning himself and we blocked the hall for 2 days (my memory is a bit hazy on that that) so that Jorge could practice and work with the Baldwin technician on tuning and voicing the instrument.

        Mrs. Cary William Bok (aka “Stormy”), then Board President, is the daughter-in-law of the founder. She married Cary Bok the son of Mary Louise Curtis and Edward Bok. Curtis Bok was the founder’s other son and the father of Derek Bok, former President of Harvard. This remarkable family tree could be the topic of a Netflix series with the many hills and valleys that occurred from the late 19th century through the early 21st.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    The lush, rich sound Jorge Bolet drew out of a Bechstein in a 1977 recital at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall somehow still rings in my ears. I don’t think that recording do his sonority any justice.
    This discussion includes many comments about his sound. For a good reason.

  • Robert Hairgrove says:

    My first personal encounter with Jorge Bolet was in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1979 at a master class devoted to, amongst other diverse solo repertoire, the Liszt E-Flat Concerto and the Brahms B-Flat Concerto (no. 2). Before that, I had only heard his stupendous RCA recording of his live recital from Carnegie Hall (in 1974 or 1975?) including the Chopin Préludes and several transcriptions, including the evergreen Schulz-Evler “Blue Danube”. I had been an exchange student in Hamburg, Germany between 1976 and then. Obviously, I went with high expectations to Edinburgh, travelling overnight by train from Hamburg via London (one of the longest train trips I had yet taken).

    Imagine my surprise as I went to the first class which was held in a boarding school (can’t remember which one) and they had situated Mr. Bolet and the 15-20 or so participants in a smallish classroom which was probably designed to hold about that many people maximum, but certainly without the C.Bechstein concert grand which was also moved there for the occasion! To begin with, Bolet talked about the “melodic line”, probably one of his favorite openers in his master classes. Expecting to hear something overwhelming by Liszt or Rachmaninoff, I was not prepared for the jaw-dropping effect on me of his demonstration of the theme of Mendelssohn’s “Variations Serieuses” which he played for us on that giant Bechstein — perhaps a passage only professionals would be impressed with; but all the more so because of the utter perfection, simplicity, and casualness he displayed. I was moved beyond words, to say the least!

    A couple of things he said which have stayed with me ever since:
    – “Always finish what you start.” Too often, performers are looking ahead too much to the next difficulty in whatever they are playing and will neglect the ending of certain passages. Jorge Bolet was a stickler for finishing phrases gracefully and paying special attention to the last few notes of any passagework (as was also Artur Schnabel, BTW);
    – “Never neglect to bring out the melody, because that is what your audience pays to hear by buying a ticket for your performance.”

    Although he did sometimes “play to the gallery” regarding his choice of repertoire, it was never done cheaply or condescendingly. He never left out notes to make things pianistically easier (although he was known to add a few of his own on occasion). Jorge Bolet was one of the most honest, inspiring, and uncompromising artists from whom I have ever had the pleasure, and good fortune, to learn.

  • moonpavilion says:

    As Bolet’s career is not so well known, I offer some details here of the context of this recording.

    European debut in The Netherlands.
    It was in May 1935 that Bolet made his European debut. (He possibly sailed to Europe on 26 January 1935.) There were recitals in Amsterdam in the Small Hall of the Concertgebouw (Wednesday 8 May) and The Hague, in the Diligentia Hall (Friday 10). The reviews are highly encouraging.

    “We are thankful that he did not use his really sensational technical gifts merely to dazzle. In his hands the de Falla became something of great musical importance.” Avondpost, den Haag, 11 May 1935

    “A new star in the musical firmament, a pupil of Godowsky…a fervid imagination, no trace of nervousness. We hope he will not become one of those brilliant keyboard wonders of today [?here today, gone tomorrow?] for his musical gifts are too genuine and precious.” Vaderland, den Haag, 11 May 1935

    The Nieuwe Rotterdam Courant [9.5.35] described the audience of the Amsterdam recital as “small but entranced”.

    And then Paris, London, Vienna, Madrid, Milan. From memory, without consulting his files, Bolet told journalist A. Ramirez in 1943: the Salle Chopin (Paris), Bechstein Saal (Berlin), Aeolian Hall (London), the Diligentia Hall (the Hague), the Conservatorio Verdi (Milan) and in 1936 (Spain) concertos with José María Franco (Madrid), concerts in the Teatro la Comedia; and also in Gijón, Oviedo and Pamplona. It is worth noting that the Spanish concerts were in April, 1936, barely three months before the outbreak of the Civil War on 17 July.
    The Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (17 May, 1935), reporting the Berlin début, talked of a phenomenal technique but said that everything was guided more by intellect than by emotion.

    On 31 May 1935 8.30pm Aeolian Hall, London, Bolet made his first appearance in Great Britain, playing on a Steinway piano. This Hall was at 135-137, New Bond Street.

    JB’s programme included Beethoven’s sonata Appassionata, César Franck’s Prelude Choral & Fugue and pieces by Chopin: Etudes Op. 10 (E flat) and Op. 25 (A minor) and the Ballade No. 1 in G minor.

    The Times 4 June 1935 reports:
    “Unfaltering control… his powerful fingers enable him to annihilate any technical problems.” The Appassionata was occasionally too theatrical but the essential urgency was well suggested, “though at times, especially in his rather prosaic treatment of the Andante, much of the poetry of the work seemed to vanish”. In the Chopin tenderness was only achieved in a curiously deliberate fashion. Liszt’s Waldesrauschen and Strauss/Godowsky Fledermaus were also included in a programme which “seldom called for spontaneity, the quality most lacking from Mr Bolet’s style”.

  • Martin Anderson says:

    He played a lunchtime recital at St John’s, Smith Square, here in London, in the early 1980s and I went backstage — well, downstairs — afterwards, hoping to talk to him about some composers who might interest him (not least, Ronald Stevenson). His first concern was to have a cigarette and then, once he heard that my father’s hobby was the restoration of old Bentleys (don’t ask me how we got on to the subject), that’s all he was interested in talking about.

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    His Schumann/Liszt Widmung is particularly lovely- great artist.

  • moonpavilion says:

    I agree. I sometimes think this may be the Bolet performance that I would take as one of my eight discs to that proverbial desert island. It exemplifies all of his qualities: the singing melodic line, the rubato, the virtuosity at the service of the music. (Though it might be Liszt Bénédiction de Dieu.)