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Louis Kentner – The pioneering Liszt recordings, Vol. 2

Louis Kentner (piano)
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Label: APR
Recording details: July 1939
Abbey Road Studios, London, United Kingdom
Release date: May 2009
Total duration: 75 minutes 18 seconds

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.


'Excellently transferred from 78s dating from 1939-59, this selection ranges from Liszt’s early exuberance to the grim-faced austerity of his final years, and throughout you will hear playing of a peerless scintillation, patrician command and a poetic engagement known to few pianists' (Gramophone)

'Kentner, a 'great-grandpupil' of the composer, offers Liszt that is aristocratic and technically exquisite—La leggierezza and La campanella as light as sound itself. Colour and sonority are magically imagined' (BBC Music Magazine)

An earlier, award-winning CD devoted to Louis Kentner’s Liszt recordings (APR 5514: The pioneering Liszt recordings) highlighted five significant premiere recordings made between 1938 and 1941. This complementary programme further explores Kentner in Liszt, albeit via a broader sweep: a sequence of famously demanding leggierissimo études, a vibrant Italian picture postcard and premiere recordings of three late works are here framed by two of Liszt’s most ingenious ‘transformations’.

There is no disputing the fact that Kentner bequeathed to the 78-rpm catalogue many outstanding Liszt recordings – arguably more than any other pianist of his generation – yet, for a variety of reasons, they remain largely unknown and overlooked, even by aficionados of the piano. First, Kentner was not a high-profile pianist when most of these recordings were made. Consequently, his solo recordings were released on UK Columbia’s ‘domestic’ dark blue label rather than the more prestigious ‘international’ light blue label. (Kentner became a more prominent figure with the arrival of the LP by which time his interpretations had assumed a more sober demeanour and the natural flair and captivating poise of his playing had diminished.) We must also remember that, except for a few obvious and once-hackneyed encore pieces, Liszt’s music was hardly popular at the time these recordings were made. The resultant sales were consequently modest. To compound matters further, wartime and post-war shortages led to many of these records surviving in the catalogue for only a limited duration; small wonder then that they are hard to come by and subsequently unexplored. I have Malcolm Binns to thank for placing the records included in this programme at APR’s disposal.

For all their rarity (and occasional wear and tear), these records document an illustrious Lisztian lineage. When the wunderkind ‘Lajos’ Kentner was admitted to the then Royal Academy of Music in Budapest in 1911, his piano studies were supervised by Arnold Székely, a pupil of one of Liszt’s favourite students, István Thomán. That Kentner was profoundly influenced by the Thomán/Székely inheritance is something of an understatement. Kentner’s Liszt is the very antithesis of the overt display and shallow understanding widely encountered over the decades both on record and in the concert hall. He brought an exceptional refinement, sophistication and, most importantly, musicality to Liszt’s music though, as will be apparent in some of these recordings, he was not averse to incorporating some filigree ‘alternative’ passages (usually to beneficial effect) when the fancy took him. As both the ‘Paganini’ and ‘Concert’ études demonstrate, Kentner had a rare and genuine leggierissimo technique. Furthermore, it was flexible and all-embracing – how else could he bring such delicate charm and elegant dazzle to the sixth Soirée de Vienne and, in the near impossible challenges of Liszt’s ‘illustration’ of the Les Patineurs scherzo, such impressive power and unforced bravura? The latter, incidentally, is also a premiere recording although the score had to be judiciously pruned in order to squeeze it onto a single disc. Despite this ‘handicap’ it must surely register Kentner’s finest moment in the recording studio made, it must be emphasised, at a time and by a process that precluded any editing whatsoever. Kentner even manages to transform the much maligned and often abused third Liebestraum into an oasis of restraint and dignity for which the composer would surely have been grateful.

Kentner’s promotion of Liszt, with UK Columbia’s dogged encouragement, continued after the war years, most significantly in 1951 when they undertook the premiere recordings of the three late pieces included in this programme. R.W.—Venezia, a markedly different aspect of Venice than the preceding Venezia e Napoli, was written as a direct response to the death in 1883 of Liszt’s son-in-law, Wagner. It is nothing more than an ascent from and subsequent return to bleak despair, all of which is powerfully projected by Kentner’s resounding sonorities. But nothing is as stark or as menacing as the Csárdás macabre – Bartók appears to be guiding the elderly Abbé’s hand in every bar – which was only published in the year Kentner made this commanding recording.

A biography and an account of how Kentner became part of UK Columbia’s impressive roster of pianists – which included Walter Gieseking, Edward Kilenyi, Egon Petri and Emil Sauer – were outlined in the booklet to APR 5514. We can here confine ourselves to a brief résumé. Kentner was born on 19 July 1905 in Karvin in Silesia, now Karviná in Czechoslovakia. As mentioned, he was admitted to what is now the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest as a child and, in addition to piano studies with Székely, worked with Leó Weiner, Hans Koessler and Zoltán Kodály. Kentner also became an acquaintance of Béla Bartók whose music he gladly promoted. He gave the Hungarian premiere of the Second Concerto in 1933, the world premiere of the Two Piano Concerto, with his first wife Ilona Kabos, in 1942 and the European premiere of the Third Concerto in 1946. Kentner made his public debut at the age of thirteen in Budapest and toured Hungary and Austria two years later. He gained wider recognition as a prizewinner in both the 1932 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw and, in the following year, the first Liszt Competition in Budapest. However, when he arrived in the UK in 1935 he was, for all practical purposes, yet another Jewish refugee musician in search of a public. This he found to immediate effect at the Aeolian Hall, London in October 1936 when he gave an all-Liszt recital to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death. It made a profound impact upon one of the few British champions of the composer at this time, the musical polymath Constant Lambert. In his Sunday Referee review (11 October 1936) Lambert stated that he had ‘never heard a pianist of such power who at the same time has such delicacy and subtlety of tone graduation … I have no hesitation in placing him among the first half-dozen masters of his instrument’. Kentner’s career was launched, one which was to last for more than half century. Kentner’s solo, concerto and chamber repertoire was gargantuan – he was as dedicated to the classics as he was to new music – and he also became an inspiring teacher. His commitment to Liszt remained undiminished to the end, as was witnessed in his ‘hands-on’ presidency of the British Liszt Society, a position he assumed in 1965 and which was only relinquished on his death in London on 22 September 1987.

Bryan Crimp © 2009

Other albums in this series

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