Let's get something straight in the beginning: Jorge Bolet is an apotheosis of ANTI-virtuoso approach to the music of Franz Liszt. That is precisely why he is the pianist who - with the obvious exception of Leslie Howard of course - has probably done most to raise Liszt's reputation as a truly great composer, far removed from the once popular notion of meretricious dilettante. So if you like Liszt for virtuosity's sake only, you may just as well skip this box set.
I often hear Jorge Bolet's early recordings accused of too much virtuosity and his late ones (for DECCA, this box set) of too less virtuosity. This is tosh. Comparison between his two recordings of the Transcendental Etudes is very revealing: 1970 for Ensayo, available separately; and 1985 for DECCA, Disc 7 in this box set. Of course it is true that the earlier recording is faster and more powerful, but you cannot possibly mistaken Bolet's eloquent musicianship with that of any other pianist, his closest rival Claudio Arrau included. The late recording is very different indeed: it is perhaps the slowest ever recorded; it should be remembered, though, that Bolet in 1985 was 70 years old, for one thing, and that he was ill through most of the 1980s anyway. That said, he is still capable of stupendous technical feats - but the more important factor is that he managed, as every great artist does, to turn his technical shortcomings into musical advantages. His late recording of Liszt's Transcendentals, for all slow tempi and 'lack of brilliance', as some superficial listeners complain, is by far the most extraordinary interpretation I have ever heard. The contrast with the moronic banging and abominably fast tempi of Berezovsky, Cziffra and co. is glaring, to say the least. Liszt's Transcendental etudes are NOT technical exercises to train you piano muscles on. Above all, these are some of the most evocative, poetic and imaginative pieces for solo piano ever written.
And there is a great deal more on these nine discs that this truly unique rendition of the Transcendentals. And Bolet is amazing at all fronts.
It is to be deeply regretted that there are only three of Liszt's operatic paraphrases here. But all of them are fabuluosly played - by which I mean with great musical insight, not with piano-smashing hammering. The famous Don Juan Fantasy was one of Bolet's first recordings for DECCA, made in December 1978 when he was 'only' 64 years old and had just signed, amazingly, the first major recording contract in his life. In 1978 Bolet's technical prowess was pretty much intact, yet he refuses to make a cheap show of one of Liszt's most perceptive compressions of a whole opera into a piano piece of outstanding length and complexity (and the opera, of course, is Mozart's Don Giovanni, no less). Some may lack the stupendous virtuosity of, say, a Earl Wild (who is also a fine musician, by the way), but certainly there is no lack of poetry and insight into both Liszt's and Mozart's scores. By contrast, only the slightly less famous Norma Fantasy was recorded ten years later and live (1988, Carolyn Blount Theater, Montgomery, USA). As usual with Bolet, he is slower than most and far more profound than everybody. I, for one, have never heard this piece played more beautifully, yet with fine dramatic touch as well (note the transition to the last subject). The well-known Rigoletto Paraphrase displays the same combination of noble restraint, great sonority and impeccable musicianship that are so typical for everything Bolet plays. Take it or leave it.
One cannot but regret also that in November 1981 Jorge Bolet recorded only 12 of Liszt's transcriptions of Schubert's songs. These are all gems. Bolet is as fiercely dramatic in 'Erlkönig' (but without any exaggeration) as he is meltingly lyrical in 'Der Muller und der Bach'. The drama of 'Aufenthalt', the poignant playfulness of 'Die Post' and 'Die Forelle', the wistful lyricism of 'Der Lindenbaum': all that - and much more - is captured here with unforgettable vividness. Bolet's recording of 'Auf dem Wasser zu Singen', one of Liszt's most imaginative transcriptions (almost a paraphrase actually!), is by far the best in my listening experience; Bolet builds a powerful climax as effortlessly as nobody else does. On the same disc there is also a magnificent recording of Liszt's fascinating and unjustly neglected orchestration of Schubert's great Wanderer Fantasie, recorded in 1986 and with the excellent Georg Solti and the London Philharmonic accompanying.
Speaking of piano and orchestra, one misses here both concertos, but they are available separately from another label, recorded in the late 1970s, in good sound and with Bolet in top form. What one does get in this box set, though, is one of the finest 'Totentanz' on record - nothing in common with Zimmerman, Cziffra or Freire. Bolet treats the haunting variations on the famous Dies Irae chant with utmost respect and entirely without any showiness. The same is true for the outstanding performances of the popular Fantasia on Hungarian Folk Tunes and the vastly neglected 'Malediction' for piano and string orchestra, one of the most astounding early masterpeices of Liszt. In all cases Ivan Fischer and the London Symphony are splendid - and splendidly recorded. It is a pity that Bolet recorded only one of the rhapsodies for solo piano - No. 12 - for this is the best illustration why his playing is often described as 'noble'.
Perhaps Bolet's highest point are Liszt's most lyrical pieces. He is without peer in the Consolations, the Liebesträume, the Three Concert Etudes (especially 'Un Sospiro') and the first of the Two Concert Etudes ('Waldesrauschen'); the second of the last set, the charmingly vivacious 'Gnomenreigen', is beautifully played too. When it comes to fabulously virtuoso pieces such as Mephisto Waltz No. 1, recorded as early as 1982 by the way, many may well find Bolet's approach unacceptable. His recording certainly lacks the diabolical quality usually associated with the piece, but, then again, there is a great deal more than Mephisto here. You might just as well be surprised by some subtle nuances which elude many a pianist who simply play much too fast to notice them.
Yet to say that Bolet lacks drama when it is needed is to misunderstand Liszt's music completely. Though in some parts of the first two books of 'Annees de Pelerinage' - Switzerland and Italy, recorded complete here - Bolet does lack brilliance, even though I may prefer Ciccolini's impassioned playing (in 'Orage', especially), I wouldn't want to be without Bolet's extraordinary touch either. His Dante Sonata certainly doesn't lack infernal colours at all; nor does his powerful performance of the monumental Second Ballade lack drama. All three of the Petrach Sonnets, it goes without saying, are perfectly unique in terms of richness of tone and poetical depth. Last but not least, Bolet's 'Venezia and Napoli', yet again, employs unusually slow tempi, not to distort the music, but quite on the contrary: to illuminate it. Note the ethereal coda of 'Gondoliera', the ominious left hand in the 'Canzone' and the incomparable middle section of the 'Tarantella'.
We are fortunate to have Bolet's late recording of Liszt's greatest masterpiece too: the Sonata in B minor. It is played in the same regal manner, with enormous sound without any banging, and with suave but massive climaxes. Overall, Bolet's tempi are faster than what is fashionable nowadays, but there never is any rushing. His climaxes are all the more moving because of their restraint. I have yet to hear an entirely satisfactory recording of this tremendous work, but if I must choose one and only one performance, I'll go with this DECCA recording of Jorge Bolet (recorded in September 1982 and on Bechstein, by the way).
Indispensable part of Bolet's greatness is that he treats even the so-called 'showpieces' with great care and seriousness. For that's exactly how they should be treated. Much venom has been spilt on Liszt because of his 'Grand Galop Chromatique' or 'La Campanella' by snobbish folk for whom the uproarious fun of the former and the glittering charm of the latter are somehow unacceptable. Nobody puts these pieces besides the Sonata, of course, but Bolet's recordings amply demonstrate that there is much more in them than mere technical wizardry. As it might be expected, his are probably the slowest 'Galop' and 'Campanella' on record. I wouldn't change either for any pseudovirtuoso who tosses off the former for mere three minutes without having any idea what it is all about or rapes the latter in order to show-off his finger dexterity. In these pieces, as always indeed, Bolet is in class of his own.
Unfortunately, but expectedly, there is only one piece from the third book of the 'Annees', and this is of course the most famous one - 'The Fountains of Villa d'Este' ('Le jeux d'eau a la Villa d'Este'), and only two pieces from the 'Harmonies poétiques et religieuses', again the most famous ones: 'Funérailles' and 'Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude'. Though Bolet does have serious competition about the former (which Horowitz owns anyway - check his mind-blowing recording from 1950), I have never heard more tranquil and serene rendition of the latter - Arrau included. As I mentioned above, when lyricism and poetry are called, so far as I am concerned, Bolet is all but unsurpassed.
Last but not least, the box set comes with a compelling liner notes by Jeremy Nicholas. In a charming and witty style he summarises Liszt's music and place in musical history, Bolet's life and personality, and the contents of all nine CDs. If this box set has any drawback, this, surprisingly for many perhaps, is the sound. It is very clean of course - all recordings but Don Juan and the five Concert Etudes are digital - and the dynamic range is staggering. But the bass often sounds flat and the high register shrill. This may be due to the somewhat unusual pianos Jorge insisted on using - Baldwin and Bechstein - but I very much doubt it. Anyway, this is a very minor drawback which only occasionally mars otherwise financially and artistically outstanding set.
Jorge Bolet is one of those artists whom you either like or dislike but can never quite ignore. If you are in the first group, these nine discs are a real treat.