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Louis Kentner - Balakirev, Lyapunov & the Liszt Sonata

Louis Kentner (piano)
2CDs for the price of 1 — Download only
Label: APR
Recording details: Various dates
Studio 3, Abbey Road, London, United Kingdom
Release date: September 2016
Total duration: 142 minutes 49 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.

Kentner’s pioneering recordings of Balakirev and Lyapunov are coupled with his much-neglected late 78-rpm recording of the Liszt Sonata, which has never before been reissued in any format. All new transfers.

To most people born after 1970, the name of Louis Kentner will mean nothing. To those born before, he was very much at the centre of British musical life—and had been since before the Second World War—a circle that included other such luminaries as his friends William Walton, Constant Lambert, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Myra Hess and his brother-in-law Yehudi Menuhin. It was the present writer’s good fortune as a small boy in the early 1950s that Kentner should have been the very first concert pianist he ever heard, leaving an indelible impression in Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto. By then, he was a household name but for some intangible reason was never celebrated in the same way as his contemporaries Rudolf Serkin, for instance, or Claudio Arrau. Ironically, he made one recording that out-sold either of these by a country mile. In 1944 he was the pianist in Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, the Rachmaninov pastiche that featured so effectively in the film Dangerous Moonlight. At his own request, Kentner asked that his name should not appear on the record label, fearing that playing for a film might harm his career. It became a best seller (3 million copies).

In piano circles, Kentner’s name and reputation have never faded, largely due to his recordings. A number of these are among the finest ever made. Some appear on these discs, including the 12 Transcendental Studies of Lyapunov which, before they were reissued on CD by APR in 2002, had been unavailable for over half a century and had acquired an almost mythic status among collectors. Secondly, there are the chamber music recordings Kentner made with Menuhin, a musical (as well as a family) marriage made in heaven. Then there are the aptly labelled ‘pioneering Liszt recordings’. When Kentner first came to England in 1935 (more of that in a moment) he took the unusual step of programming an all-Liszt recital at a time when, as Kentner admitted himself, ‘Liszt was the bête-noir of British critics’; to its credit, the Columbia label allowed him to make between 1938 and 1940 a series of premiere recordings of Liszt, including Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude.

Thus Kentner, without any design on his part, became known as a Liszt specialist. ‘Far be it for me to complain,’ he wrote in a self-portrait penned for a celebration of his eightieth birthday. ‘Being someone on his knees to Beethoven, Bach, Schubert did not prevent me from loving Liszt too with all my heart, and the new “label” did this for me, amongst other things: it forced me to learn a new repertoire and to improve my technique towards being adequate to playing the works of Liszt. It also helped me a little to discover in myself a latent affinity with Liszt’s music. So I had to come to England, the anti-Liszt land par excellence, to become a Liszt player par excellence—a curious truth, come to think of it.’

There is, surely, something poetic about Liszt, the great Hungarian composer, being championed in an antipathetic environment by a Hungarian émigré. I say ‘Hungarian’ (and all the reference works concur) but Kentner stated in a 1939 interview that this was a matter of conjecture: ‘I was born [1905] in the village of Karvin in the Silesian coal-mining district. When I was a boy it was part of the Austrian Empire, after [World War 1] it passed to Czechoslovakia, then became part of Poland. Now it belongs to Germany. But my passport is Hungarian.’ Now renamed Karviná, the city lies in the Czech Republic.

He was named ‘Lajos’ (and in fact made some solo recordings in Hungary under that name in the 1920s). His father was a railway official and, later, successful businessman who, according to Kentner, ‘had one redeeming quality: he loved music’. As an amateur pianist Kentner père spent hours playing through reductions of ballet and opera scores, engaging his son as page-turner and, when older, four-hand partner in Beethoven symphonies. Thus ‘I became more familiar with some great masterpieces than others who have heard them in perfect performances on records.’

Aged six, Kentner entered the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest where the average age of the students was seventeen or eighteen. His first teachers there were Kálmán Chován (who had taught the young Fritz Reiner only a few years earlier), Hans Koessler and, subsequently, Arnold Székely. The latter made Kentner a grand-pupil of Liszt, for Székely had studied with one of Liszt’s favourite students, István Thomán. The professor, though, was not to his taste, and he changed teachers: Leó Weiner (‘the earliest and strongest of influences on me as a musician’) for piano and Zoltán Kodály for theory and composition.

Two years after his public debut aged thirteen in Budapest, Kentner toured Europe and, at seventeen, settled in Berlin after his first appearance there. However, his father’s death brought him back to Budapest to support his mother and sister—fortuitously, as it happened, because he resumed studies with Kodály. Kentner began presenting annual all-Kodály concerts (chamber music, songs, piano music), eventually giving the first performance of the Dances of Marosszek. But, as is evident from his programmes during the late ’20s, Kentner’s repertoire was as broad as it was eclectic, taking in a cycle of all five Beethoven piano concertos, Bach, Schubert, Chopin, Scriabin, de Falla, Debussy and Ravel, as well as Kodály and Bartók. Known internationally as Ludwig Kentner until 1931, on a visit to London in 1928 he played Liszt’s Sonata in B minor at the Grotrian Hall. ‘A finely equipped young pianist from Budapest’, ran the review, whose Liszt Sonata ‘… reached a very high level of technical display.’

In 1933 Bartók asked Kentner to give the first performance in Budapest of his Piano Concerto No 2 with Otto Klemperer conducting (Kentner went on to give the world premiere of Bartók’s Two-Piano Concerto in 1942 with his then wife Ilona Kabós and Sir Adrian Boult, and, in 1946, the European premiere of his Piano Concerto No 3, again under Boult). It was soon after the Bartók event that Kentner decided to emigrate to England. Once in the country ‘new friends […] took it upon themselves to ease my way as a pianist: three recitals were arranged to make my name known to the British public. It cannot be said that I took London by storm. The press was divided, even before it became openly hostile (this hostility being partly caused by my daring to espouse the cause of Liszt).’

As Bryan Crimp observes in his booklet for the APR release of Kentner’s Liszt recordings (1937-41), ‘he was, to all intents and purposes, yet another Jewish refugee musician in search of a public’. Other friends then persuaded Kentner to give an all-Liszt recital commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Liszt’s death. The concert at the Aeolian Hall, London, in October 1936 inspired a sensational review from Constant Lambert, music critic of the Sunday Referee, in which he had ‘no hesitation in placing him among the first half-dozen masters of his instrument, while as an interpreter of Liszt he is second only to Petri’. What gave Kentner’s playing its exceptional quality, Lambert continued, was ‘its remarkable intelligence and musical instinct …’ Lambert also noted that what great Liszt playing required was a ‘physical ease’, something that Kentner had in abundance. Indeed, this is a characteristic immediately evident when viewing the few examples of him playing on film: if anything, he leans away from the keyboard rather than towards it, elbows held below the keys, as though he were a observing with detached paternal pride the activity of his rather miraculous hands.

A series of Mozart concerto performances with Sir Thomas Beecham followed, cycles of the complete Beethoven sonatas, the complete Schubert sonatas and the entire Well-Tempered Clavier. Kentner’s marriage to Kabós ended in 1945. His second wife was Griselda Gould, whose sister Diana would marry Yehudi Menuhin in 1947. Kentner’s friendship and musical partnership with the violinist has been noted, the cellist Gaspar Cassadó joining them for trios. His career in America was limited, though described by the critic of the New York Herald Tribune after his belated debut there in 1956 as ‘beyond doubt one of the finest pianists heard here in a long time. His technique and keyboard security are phenomenal, but this surely is the result of perfect rapport between mind and fingers.’ He returned to give all the Beethoven sonatas in New York in 1960 in a series of seven recitals. Back in Britain he played the music of many British contemporary composers including Bax, Walton, Arnold Cooke, Tippett, Lambert, Ireland and Rawsthorne.

Louis Kentner continued to teach and perform for the rest of his life. President of The Liszt Society from 1965 until his death, he also composed piano pieces, orchestral works, chamber music and songs. He died in London on 22 September 1987.

No more than a handful of Balakirev’s piano works had been recorded before Louis Kentner’s three visits to Abbey Road in 1944. In April came the Mazurka in A flat major, on 14 June Islamey and the following day Rêverie. The mazurka is a Polish folk dance in triple time, a form raised to concert-hall status by Chopin’s masterpieces. Balakirev wrote seven; the first two are short, early works, the rest more extended. No 6 is characteristic of the composer in thrall to the exotic world of the Orient, beginning with an idea reminiscent of a muezzin’s call to prayer. The ending is in duple time, written in the form of another Polish dance, the lively krakowiak.

Rêverie (in F major) is another little-known gem, which again combines the four chief influences on Balakirev’s music—Glinka, Chopin, Liszt and ‘Eastern Russianism’. The opening theme is unmistakably Russian while the treatment and general impulse is Lisztian (not least the cadenza towards the end). The complex decoration could only be by Balakirev.

Islamey in Kentner’s hands may not astonish in quite the same way as Barere or, later, Berezovsky but is a clearer, more transparent reading of the text, duly noting the composer’s multiple tempo changes more faithfully than either. It is a thrilling account, slightly marred by Kentner’s curious rewriting of the passage at 2'03" that links the opening subject (in B flat minor) with the second  D major). To end the first section, Balakirev lands firmly on a D flat major chord by way of F, E flat, F and D flat in quaver octaves, followed by four bars of modulation. It is on record that Kentner disliked these transitional bars—and that is the reason why he substitutes C natural, B flat, C, and A natural quaver octaves, and cuts the four bars, proceeding to the second subject in a way that is as ugly as it is clumsy: a rare Kentner miscalculation.

Five years later, Kentner returned to Balakirev and recorded his Piano Sonata in B flat minor. It was composed between 1900 and 1905, though the second movement was completed five years before the rest of the Sonata, and published independently as Mazurka No 5 in D. Why the work is so little known and rarely played must remain a mystery. It has warmth, lyricism and strong melodic content to recommend it with a first movement which is (for those to whom such things matter), according to Gerald Abraham, ‘a reconciliation of fugue and sonata form – or at least with its broad outline of statement, development and recapitulation’. Kentner was the first to record the Sonata. It has not yet been bettered.

Liszt’s Dante Sonata, recorded in 1940 in Constant Lambert’s arrangement, was one of only six works for piano and orchestra that Kentner recorded (a number that includes an unissued recording of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 made in June 1945 in Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall, the orchestra conducted by Maurice Miles). Then on 23 and 24 August 1946 he recorded Liszt’s great B minor Sonata, making him, surprisingly, only the fourth pianist to do so following Cortot (1929), Horowitz (1932) and Cor de Groot (1942). Selected takes from these sessions, produced by Walter Legge, were approved for an August 1947 release, however prior to this, Kentner had doubts about his performance and withdrew his approval. In the meantime, György Sandor’s account of the Sonata appeared on the US Columbia label in 1947. Further sessions were arranged in May 1948 (with an additional date in June also needed), where the work was produced by Peter Albu. This resulted in a satisfactory performance, though this was not released until July 1951, after he had made his successful Balakirev and Lyapunov recordings of 1949, which were issued in August and October 1951 respectively.

Even then, there were reservations in some quarters about the release of the recording, not least from Kentner himself who, apparently, felt the performance ‘too episodic’. To Edward Sackville-West in The Gramophone (November 1951) ‘the bravura passages [were] technically insecure, with too liberal assistance from the sustaining pedal [leading him] into exaggerated rubato and an uncontrolled romantic excess, which betray the meaning of the work’—an opinion with which this writer for one finds it difficult to agree. Who could fail to be impressed by Liszt playing of such daring and conviction, such rich sonority and pianistic command? Here is a B minor Sonata that has been in the fingers for many years, where attention to detail is as paramount as the pacing and shaping of the musical journey. A good example is the Recitativo section (9'33") with its masterly use of the pedal, phrasing and judicious tempi fluctuations leading to the F sharp major Andante sostenuto pages. In the end, however, the recording had a very brief shelf-life, coming as it did at the end of the 78-rpm era and the introduction of long-playing records. This album is the first time it has been published in any format since 1951.

Kentner’s most celebrated contribution to the gramophone is his recording of all twelve Études d’exécution transcendante by Sergey Lyapunov. Lyapunov makes an apt companion to the other composers in this set. Not only was he Balakirev’s last important pupil, but the two volumes of his Études were written ‘en hommage’ to Liszt’s better known set of the same title and they were inscribed ‘À la memoire vénerée de François Liszt’. In them, Lyapunov completed the tonalities that Liszt had not attempted (i.e. using only the sharp keys, Liszt having used the natural and flat keys for his twelve). They were written between 1897 and 1905. No 1 of the set is ‘Berceuse’ (F sharp major). Kentner first recorded this as a separate item in March 1939, repeating it ten years later when he came to record all twelve Studies. All the titles are self-explanatory with two exceptions: the ‘Térek’ of No 4 is the River Terek which flows through Georgia and Russia into the Caspian Sea—but this is a portrait of the river as depicted in Lermontov’s poem Dari Tereka which Lyapunov quotes at the head of the score; the ‘Lesginka’ of No 10 , the most familiar of the set and a close relation to Balakirev’s Islamey, is a violent dance of the Mohammedan tribe. No 8 ‘Chant épique’ echoes Russian orthodox chant and quotes a folk song ‘From out of the wood, the dark wood’. Nos 6, 9, and 11 (‘Tempête’, ‘Harpes éoliennes’ and ‘Ronde des sylphes’) are directly inspired by Liszt’s Orage, Chasse-neige and Feux follets. No 12, ‘Élégie en mémoire de François Liszt’, opens with a quote from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 1.

Apart from the immaculate fingerwork and crisp textures, throughout this set Kentner’s playing is distinguished by an emotional charge, a rich tonal palette and a risky disregard for the immense difficulty present in much of the writing. With his always-present singing tone and that ‘physical ease’ noted by Constant Lambert back in 1936, these are performances of a romantic aplomb that are themselves transcendental, uninhibited by the constrictions of the recording studio. There are three adjectives most commonly used by commentators when Kentner’s playing is being discussed: noble, elegant, aristocratic; all three are gloriously on display in the service of Lyapunov’s masterpieces.

A final point: the Lyapunov Études and Balakirev’s Sonata were (still are) relatively obscure works of the literature and com mercially risky projects for any record label. They would not have been recorded without independent financial backing—and it came from an unlikely source: the wealthy piano-loving Maharaja Sri Sir Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar Bahadur, otherwise known as the Maharaja of Mysore (1919-74), the last living prince of the Indian Empire. This remarkable man, with his taste for recherché Western repertoire, was the founder of the Medtner Society and also paid for many recordings of music by Medtner, whose Piano Concerto No 3 is dedicated to him. His largesse also enabled Walter Legge’s post-war Philharmonia Orchestra to be put on a firm financial footing and undertake recordings of Balakirev’s First Symphony and Roussel’s Fourth under Herbert von Karajan. Piano lovers are not the only ones in the Maharaja’s debt.

Jeremy Nicholas © 2016

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