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From the Vaults: Jorge Bolet Plays Rachmaninoff

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In the summer of 1957, the pianist Jorge Bolet gave a celebrated performance with the Stadium Symphony Orchestra of New York at Lewisohn Stadium in Upper Manhattan. The program's centerpiece was Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, a trademark piece for the Havana-born Bolet. A leading figure in Romantic pianism, Bolet’s career was arguably launched at sixteen, when he played Carnegie Hall before an audience that included such luminaries as Hofmann, Godowsky, Rachmaninoff, and Horowitz. Bolet went on to win the Naumberg Award and the Josef Hofmann Award.

Yet Bolet booked very few gigs in the 1940s and 1950s, a period of his life he reportedly described as “half-starvation.” The pianist experienced a major revival in 1978 when he signed with Decca/London, under which he recorded works by Liszt, Chopin, Brahms, Schumann, and Rachmaninoff. Bolet is also credited for his recordings of the Godowsky arrangements for the Chopin Etudes, considered to be among the most difficult pieces ever written for solo piano.

A graduate of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Bolet also taught at the school and remained a dedicated teacher throughout his life. In the 1980s, shortly before his death, Bolet produced a series of master classes devoted to Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto no. 3, in which he can be seen halting a student to say: “This reminds me of the story of the farmer that had a mule for sale.” Bolet went on to weave a little fable, illuminating the merits of subtlety in performance. 

“It isn’t necessary to hit the listener over the head to get his attention,” Bolet advised the student. “You can do it in a much more subtle way.”

Audio courtesy of NYPR Archives.