The brilliant cuban-born American pianist, Jorge Bolet, studied began serious study of the piano at age 5 under the direction of his sister Maria. He played his first public recital at age 9 and appeared as soloist with the Havana Sinfonica at age 10. In 1927, he was awarded a scholorship to The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied with David Saperton (piano) and Fritz Reiner (conducting). During this period he also played often for, and received coaching from, Josef Hofmann and Leopold Godowsky (1932-1933). At 16, he appeared as a soloist with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner in Carnegie Hall.
Upon his graduation in 1934, the Cuban government sent Jorge Bolet to Europe for further training under Moriz Rosenthal (1935). While there, he began his concert career, making his European debut in Amsterdam in 1935, and appearing subsequently in Vienna, Berlin, Paris, London, The Hague, Milan, and Madrid and other Spanish cities. His North American debut was in 1937, a performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. He then continued his training with Rudolf Serkin. This was followed by his New York recital debut at Town Hall in 1937 as winner of the Naumburg Award. He returned to Town Hall in 1940 as the first and only winner of the Josef Hofmann Award given by the Curtis Institute (1938). He served as Rudolf Serkin's assistant at the The Curtis Institute of Music from 1939 to 1942.
At the outbreak of World War II, Jorge Bolet joined the Cuban army and as a lieutenant served at the Cuban Embassy in Washington under regime of President Batista. After the Batista government fell, Bolet joined in 1942 the United States Army and became an American citizen. While stationed in Tokyo with the Army of Occupation, Bolet conducted the Japanese prémiere of The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan, and made several appearances as soloist with the Nippon Philharmonic Orchestra.
Following his separation from the service, Jorge Bolet pursued additional training with Abram Chasins. He then resumed his interrupted career. As both recitalist and soloist with orchestra, Bolet toured extensively throughout the world. He performed with most of the major orchestras, including the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, Berliner Philharmoniker, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Madrid, Minnesota Orchestra, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He was known to an even wider audience through radio and television appearances on such programs as the Bell Telephone Hour.
Jorge Bolet's first recordings appeared in the early 1950's on the Boston and Remington labels, and include a much-acclaimed performance of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2. A leading interpreter of the music of Franz Liszt, Bolet recorded the soundtrack for Song Without End, a 1960 (or 1961) film on the life of Franz Liszt. It was not until the early 1960's that he gained wide recognition as a cvirtuoso in the grand Romantic manner. In sebsequent years, he toured all over the globe. His playing, though, was condemned by American critics for decades as too focused on virtuosity. Hence he only made a few recordings for smaller labels in the 1960's. His playing was featured on releases from RCA Victor, Everest, Ensayo, Genesis, Opus, Columbia/CBS, and Vox.
Jorge Bolet came to prominence in 1974 with a stupendous recital at Carnegie Hall, which set a seal on his reputation. Bolet, stung by years of neglect, showed exactly what he could do and his phenomenal playing can be heard on CD's issued most recently by Philips in their Great Pianists Series. In 1984, the A&E Network broadcast a series of three programs entitled Bolet Meets Rachmaninoff, in which the pianist was shown giving master-classes on Piano Concerto No. 3 (Sergei Rachmaninov), or, as it is popularly known, "The Rach Third". This is followed on the series by a complete performance of Bolet playing the concerto. The Decca/London recording company contracted him in 1978, so that Bolet got his first major record contract at the age of 63. They made recordings of key sections of his repertoire from 1978 up to his death, but there are also tapes of many live concerts which can be found in archives, principally the International Piano Archive at Maryland. These include a speciality of his, which he studied with the composer himself: the J. Strauss/L.Godowsky Fledermaus paraphrase.
Jorge Bolet served as professor of music at the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington from 1968 to 1977, and from 1977 as the Head of Piano Department at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (succeeding Rudolf Serkin). He also conducted numerous master-classes around the world. His health began to decline in 1988, and in 1989 he underwent a brain operation from which he never fully recovered. He died from heart failure in October 1990, at his home in San Mateo (Mountain View), California.
Jorge Bolet is particularly well remembered for his performances and recordings of large-scale Romantic music, particularly works by Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin. He also specialised in piano transcriptions and unusual repertoire, including the fiendishly difficult works of Leopold Godowsky, many of which Bolet had studied with the composer himself. In an interview given to Elyse Mach (Great Contemporary Pianists Speak for Themselves; Dover Books on Music), Jorge Bolet extensively mentioned the "Romantic Piano Concerto" by Joseph Marx which was, according to Bolet's own words, his favorite among the great virtuoso concertos because of the enormous show of strength required from the soloist.
Throughout his career, Jorge Bolet bucked the system endorsing and performing on Baldwin and C. Bechstein pianos worldwide. When others aligned with the Steinway piano, he chose to show a different approach and a unique broadly varied tone through the non-standard instruments. It is common knowledge that Bolet's best Decca/London recordings were on the Baldwin SD-10 concert grand. Some of the most celebrated, near the end of his career, were made with Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (Orchestre symphonique de Montréal). Most pianophiles agree that the most perfect piano sound and tone (through masterful piano technical preparation) was the last Decca/London solo piano recording of Debussy.