That long-contemplated but less-often-encountered phenomenon called "the Liszt Muse" burst forth last night at the Liszt festival as Jorge Bolet took the stage. It was expected to be the climactic solo performance of the festival, and it was quite an event.
"The Liszt Muse" is not just a phrase that grew out of whatever the 19th century called hype. It refers to those rare cases when a player draws from the notes that Liszt wrote for his own fingers some of the Lisztian electricity.
It's not so much a question of being able to play notes as what you do with them. An occasional cliche' applied to great Liszt playing is that the pianist made it sound easy. Of course, it is just the opposite.
In fact, what kept grabbing the listener last night at Baird Auditorium was not his facility, immense as it was, but the intensity of his concentration and the coherence of his phrasing.
Bolet's Liszt is celebrated -- for many decades now. It is powerful, very much so, but its greatest strength is poetic. As much as any pianist, Bolet is the master of Liszt's instant shifts of mood from dense turbulence to rapt tenderness and then unexpectedly back again. They are the quintessence of the composer's particular white-hot brand of romanticism.
To a significant extent, Liszt created the vocabulary of the modern concert grand. He encountered all kinds of musical possibilities that were unavailble to such great piano composers as Mozart and Beethoven -- or even Chopin.
Great pianists like Bolet are what they are in Liszt because they use these possibilities for expression, not display. For instance, in the heroic B-minor ballade Bolet unforgettably accentuated one of those shifts from emotional hot to emotional cold with a startlingly quick release of a massive chord by the sustaining pedal. In print this may sound clinical. To the ear it is high drama.
There was no aspect of Bolet's playing that was used to greater poetic effect than his dynamics. Nothing is harder than playing certain things soft -- or, to be more specific, with 15 different degrees of softness. Bolet left you wondering how he did it.
The man also bent and sustained lyric lines with extraordinary imagination. One little part of a line might be colored a certain way, and another part might be sharply contrasted, never losing the thread in the process.
*All these qualities came together most eloquently in one of Liszt's noblest works, his "Fantasia quasi Sonata, Apre's une lecture de Dante." Its heroic and lyric sides were merged as if born together.
There were also the three gorgeous sonatas from Petrarch, originally tenor song settings of three sonnets. In them Bolet's separation and delineation of individual lines was spectacular. For more outward display, there came four of the "Transcendental Etudes."