Liszt: Opera paraphrases of Bellini and Verdi

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COMPOSERS: Liszt
LABELS: Assai
WORKS: Opera paraphrases of Bellini and Verdi
PERFORMER: Giovanni Bellucci (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 222172
Over 11 years after Jorge Bolet’s death, his Decca Liszt recordings have been re-released en masse. These were made almost entirely between 1978 and 1985 – in other words, at the time of the pianist’s late-blossoming celebrity.

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Bolet’s career was strange: a pianist of the most extraordinary gifts (to Gilels he was ‘the only great pianist in America’), he spent his prime out of the limelight. This has led some critics to regret that these and other Decca tokens of his senior years lack the fire of his younger self. As a youth in Johannesburg I heard Bolet in an absolutely thunderous performance of the Transcendental Studies; by contrast his 1985 recording, made two decades after that recital, is magnificently restrained, the thunder mostly distant.

But the Liszt recordings that resulted are characterised by, at best, an aristocratic grandeur that in our day only Arrau has equalled. Bolet’s distilled, rarefied art of spinning out a translucent lyrical line, his broad tempi, deep-toned basses and unforced sonorousness, were all the product of his musicianly maturity as a Liszt interpreter.

Key examples here are the B minor Sonata, one of the greatest on disc, the Schubert song transcriptions, the Norma and Rigoletto paraphrases, the Swiss and Italian Années de pèlerinage. But these nine CDs are full of glories. Indeed, they display composer and performer (and Decca’s engineers) at their highest levels of achievement.

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Giovanni Bellucci, a little-known Italian in his late thirties, is not yet a Lisztian of this order; but a disc of Italian opera paraphrases proves a gauge of remarkable gifts. His understanding of these works’ bipolar fascination – their operatic lyricism, their pianistic brilliance – is beautifully lean, clear and exact, as the Aida paraphrase, the gem of his collection, makes plain. At this stage he lacks Bolet’s spaciousness (so does the recording), but he’s someone to watch. Max Loppert