Musical feats, like athletic feats, have become commonplace in this age of overachievers. Time was when playing the Four Ballades of Chopin on a recital program earned a pianist a special badge for courage and stamina. No longer.
Jorge Bolet, who has earned all the badges he will ever need in a career spanning six decades, returned to Ambassador Auditorium Wednesday night, and closed his program of ballades with the four by Chopin. For the 71-year-old pianist, it was no particular feat. For his listeners, it was a blessing.
Bolet has been playing these four works as a group for a long time; without denying any one of them its unique character, he makes of the group a continuous musical narrative. By itself, for instance, the First Ballade can accommodate a more bombastic approach, and more fervid climaxes than Bolet gave it Wednesday. In this context of remembered, rather than present, conquests, and a certain reticence of heroism, however, this G-minor Ballade positively glowed with inner fires and sculptured, ostensibly spontaneous details.
Naturalness of musical speech combined with a noble and contained statement characterized Bolet's approach to all four pieces. He gave each one its special profile, but excelled in bringing out the kaleidoscopic nature of its gentler moments.
The culmination of the set, of course, is that battleground of conflicts which close the F-minor Ballade. Bolet delivered all the pianistic colors and emotional resonances therein, while apparently surveying the scene from afar. It made a stunning conclusion.
In the first half of this program, a certain opaqueness of thought marked the pianist's approach to Grieg's "Ballade in the Form of Variations on a Norwegian Melody," and the first two of Brahms' Four Ballades, Opus 10.
Thereafter, rapport between performer and listener grew, and thrived. Bolet's probing, clarifying manner brought special rewards in the B-major piece which closes the set. Consequently, the distance from there to Liszt's Ballade No. 2 in B minor, played with virtuosic disdain of its myriad difficulties, seemed short indeed.
Only two circumstances marred the occasion. First, the utterly wrongheaded and cliche-ridden program notes, which seemed to have been written by one with no personal experience of the music. Second, a gang of coughers and hackers, stationed in different parts of the hall, who worked very hard at preventing others from hearing the performance.
At the end, three encores were forthcoming: Chopin's Etudes, Opus 25, Nos. 1 and 2, and an an excerpt from Bizet's "L'arlesienne."