BALAKIREV: Piano Sonata in B-flat min. Rêverie. Mazurka No. 6 in A-flat. Islamey (Fantasie Orientale). LISZT: Piano Sonata in B min. LYAPUNOV: 12 Études d’Exécution Transcendante: Complete performance; I. Etude / Louis Kentner, pianist / APR 6020
The liner notes for this remarkable CD, following hard on the heels of the revelatory José Iturbi solo recordings issued by the same label, say that “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.” But Kentner centered his career so much in England that he was less well known here in America than Hess, Moiseiwitsch, or even Shura Cherkassky, another émigré who spent the bulk of his adult life in Great Britain. Kentner didn’t make his American debut until 1956, and played all 32 Beethoven Sonatas in New York in 1960, but that was about it. If Kentner’s name meant anything at all to Americans, it was mostly from his recordings that were issued here.
Ironically, the one Kentner recording that sold a million billion copies (OK, I’m exaggerating a little…it “only” sold THREE MILLION copies) was the one he begged the record company (English Columbia) to leave his name off of: Richard Addinsell’s schlocky Warsaw Concerto from the blockbuster film Dangerous Moonlight. Was he wise to do so? Perhaps we should look at the fate of poor Iturbi, who lent his name and face to a dozen or more Hollywood films and thus saw his reputation as a serious artist go down the toilet.
Kentner was defined as an Austrian Jew, but only because at the time he was born the town of Karvin was part of the Austrian Empire. After World War I it was handed off to Czechoslovakia, who then passed it off to Poland, who then kicked it over to Germany. (Status update: now renamed Karviná, the village is part of the Czech Republic. So he came from a town nobody wanted and still doesn’t really want!)
Yet Kentner’s passport said “Hungarian.” That’s because his family had moved there, and he made his debut at age 13 in Budapest. He later toured Europe and, at 17, settled in Berlin, but his father’s death brought him back to Budapest to support his mother and sister. He was so well liked that in 1933 Béla Bartók asked him to give the world premiere of his Second Piano Concerto with Otto Klemperer conducting. Kentner also premiered Bartók’s Two-Piano Concerto in 1942 with his wife, Ilona Kabós, and Sir Adrian Bolt conducting. By then he was a fixture in England, having moved there in 1935, where he spent the rest of his life.
So much for the history of this fascinating pianist…on to a review of his playing. Kentner was, to put it mildly, one of the most lyrical yet exciting pianists I’ve ever heard—similar, in fact, to Bartók himself or even Alfred Cortot, only with a much more secure technique than Cortot. His performances of Balakirev’s music is nothing short of miraculous. The music does not seem to be so much played by a person as simply spun out of thin air by the piano itself. The notes just unravel themselves with near-perfect “time,” and this is, in my view, one of the most difficult aspects of pianism that can possibly be acquired. It’s not just a matter of “tempo”; it’s a matter of being able to play with such a varied touch that no matter what the score the result absolutely captivates the listener. Granted, Balakirev’s music has a touch of the mystical about it anyway, but those touches are wrapped in a cocoon of Russian romanticism, e.g. the Rêverie in F which has a Tchaikovsky-like sound to it, except that Balakirev’s sense of construction is more rigorous and less amorphous than Tchaikovsky’s. Note, for instance, the passage in which the composer sets up two contrasting melodic and rhythmic figures against each other, one in the left hand and one in the right. Your average pianist, even your average good pianist, is going to play these in such a way that they “balance” each other. Kentner plays them in such a way that they sound completely discrete, as if two different pianists were playing in perfect synch against each other. And yet Kentner creates such a mood to go along with the mind-boggling technique that the non-pianist will only hear the music and its emotional impact on him or her and not this slight-of-hand in the technique.
Oddly, Kentner’s performance of Islamey has less of an “oriental aura” about it than some of the other works, particularly in the exciting introductory passages. These are played with tremendous vigor and energy, almost as if the pianist was so excited about the music that he wanted to tell you about it right now and in very vigorous terms. Yet even in the more “mysterious” middle section, he seemed to me a bit les exotic in his touch than in the Piano Sonata. Even so, I found it an extraordinary performance, certainly one of the best I’ve ever encountered.
I was rather startled to hear Kentner’s rendition of the Liszt Sonata, as it is so incredibly different from the way I am used to hearing it. Normally, the music is taken at a somewhat measured pace, especially the opening where the isolated notes try to make an impression on the listener before the remainder of the sonata unravels itself. That’s how Annie Fischer and Sviatoslav Richter played it, but not Kentner. He takes us on an excited and excitable journey, compacting its usual 30-minute length into a little under 28 minutes, yet when he comes to the more lyrical episode, around the four-minute mark, there is no lack of sensitivity. He simply views the fast passages as more enervating and dynamic than one is used to. It’s a unique take on the music, yet in some ways authentically Hungarian. As a rule, Hungarian musicians—not only pianists but violinists, cellists and conductors—view music much the way Arturo Toscanini did, as an organic whole in which all elements must fit and be part of the ongoing structure, not some amorphous, sprawling beast to be allowed to spread out and roam unchecked over the score. I find Kentner’s Liszt to be very much in line with the way György Cziffra played this composer, or even William Kapell (listen to the latter’s Mephisto Waltz), but for those who prefer more “space” in the sonata it will take some getting used to. Kentner makes it sound more akin to the earlier, flashier Liszt than to the composer of Un Sospiro or Nuages. But just to show how differently other people hear things, when this recording was issued in 1951 Edward Sackville-West, in The Gramophone, carped that “the bravura passages [were] technically insecure, with too liberal assistance from the sustaining pedal [leading him] into exaggerated rubato and an uncontrolled romantic excess.” I don’t hear anything of the sort…not even close.
The second CD is taken up with Sergei Lyapunov’s Transcendental Etudes, first with a 1939 recording of the opening “Berceuse” and then with his justly-famous 1949 recording of the complete series. Interestingly, although the single recording of the “Berceuse” is taken at a slower pace, it is the one from the complete set that sounds more relaxed and “floated” in conception and execution. Kentner’s incredible technique is evident in the “Ronde des fantômes,” a performance so delicate yet so clearly etched that it sounds like notes dancing on the head of a pin. The Lyapunov Etudes were not only dedicated to Liszt but use the sharp keys that the earlier composer avoided in his own set, yet Kentner manages to draw out their unique Russian qualities while maintaining a very Liszt-like sense of surface excitement. Note, for instance, how he is able to draw out the almost Persian-like colors of the “Chant épique” as well as emphasize the bouncing rhythm in the second half of the piece. It was a unique achievement in its day, and the overall performances still hold up well today. The work is so rare that it is seldom performed and, thus far, this is one of only four complete recordings: Kentner remade them in stereo for a Turnabout LP back in the 1960s, and there are also versions available by Malcolm Binns (Pearl) and Konstantin Scherbakov (Marco Polo). I note, however, that pianist Florian Noack is in the process of recording Lyapunov’s complete piano works for Ars Production, and thus should eventually get around to this set of Etudes.
All in all, a supremely valuable set. All of these recordings were newly transferred from the original 78s (they were recorded between 1939 and 1949). The transfers are fairly crisp and clear but, to my ears, have far too much surface noise. If you have an audio editor on your computer, however, you can do as I did and remove most of it from the download tracks before burning it to CD.
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley