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Here on three CDs, in Volume 1 of what promises to be a series featuring releases of previously unissued Berlin broadcasts made between 1962 and1975, is Jorge Bolet in all his glory. Given before the cruel irony of his late celebrity when his powers had dimmed, these performances are of a breathtaking aristocratic strength, grace and fluency. Indeed it is tempting to say that no piano playing of more sheer beauty exists on record. Principally devoted to Chopin and Liszt – cornerstones of Bolet’s repertoire – the playing is of a pianistic command and poetic instinct given to very few.

In his selection from Liszt’s ‘Suisse’ Années de pèlerinage there is suffi cient evocation in ‘La Chapelle de Guillaume Tell’ to make every Swiss citizen’s heart beat with pride. ‘Pastorale’ is an affectionate tribute to the finale of Beethoven’s Pastoral Sonata, and never more so than given with such winning gentleness, while his way with ‘Au lac de Wallenstadt’makes poetic sense of the Romantic novelist Marie d’Agoult’s claim that she heard ‘a melancholy harmony, imitative of the sigh of waves and the cadence of oars’. The impact of ‘Orage’ (it once appeared in a programme as ‘Orange’!) may be muted by Bolet’s choice of instrument (he preferred Bechsteins and Baldwins to brighter-toned Steinways) but he is all magic and scintillation in ‘Au bord d’une source’, in music prefaced by Schiller, ‘in murmuring coolness the play of young Nature begins.’ Most stunning of all is ‘Vallée d’Obermann’ where the poet’s world-weary and Byronic despondency ends in a magnificent uproar.

The choice of six of the Transcendental Etudes opens with ‘Preludio’, a dazzling curtain-raiser and flexing of muscles that from Bolet flash like summer lightening. And while he intriguingly takes No 2 more by stealth than storm, he is unforgettable in ‘Harmonies du soir’ with a supreme focus on this etude’s inner light and poetry. Again, Bolet makes Busoni’s description of ‘Ricordanza’ (‘like a packet of yellowed love letters’) meaningful rather than sentimental while the prophecy of Impressionism in ‘Chasse-neige’ includes left hand chromatic gusts that chill the blood. He draws a melancholy veil across the dreaming surfaces of the three Liebesträume; and for all its glitter and aplomb his Rhapsodie espagnole is never allowed to descend into bombast. In sum, how garish and superficial he makes other so-called Lisztians sound!

Bolet’s command of the Chopin Fantasie made me remember a tribute by his colleague Abbey Simon (‘no one has a greater technique than Jorge’) and in the four Impromptus he is all fleetness and charm, his way with the scales, which so surprisingly end No 2, giving new meaning to the term virtuosity. The selection of Debussy Préludes are, once more, a far cry from Bolet’s later Decca disc and not even Gieseking achieves a finer sense of empathy in ‘La Cathédrale engloutie’. Moszkowski’s En automne, the Saint-Saëns/Godowsky Le cygne, and Godowsky’s La Salon are added as encores, with the Strauss-Godowsky Die Fledermaus as a final reminder of a pianist of flawlessly projected wit and brilliance. The recorded sound is admirable, the presentation lavish – all of which makes the wait for Volume 2 agonising!

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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